Karine Jean-Pierre
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The Importance of Seeking Social Security Survivor's Benefits

Helen Thornton and Marge Brown

Pictured: Helen Thornton (at right), one of the plaintiffs who challenged the denial of Social Security survivor’s benefits, and at left with her partner, Marge Brown.

Same-sex spouses who’d been unable to marry because of discriminatory laws won the right to Social Security survivor’s benefits last year, but activists are still trying to get the word out to them.

“Given the sheer amount of time that marriage discrimination stretched across history, there are thousands of same-sex couples who were never able to marry before one partner died, and the vast majority of the surviving partners have never applied for survivor’s benefits,” Peter Renn, counsel at Lambda Legal, tells The Advocate. “Now that the pathway is finally open, they need to take action. These monthly benefits can have a dramatic impact on people’s everyday lives.” Indeed, in August the Social Security Administration said the average monthly survivor’s benefit was about $1,250.

Lambda Legal had brought class action lawsuits on behalf of surviving spouses who’d been denied the benefits. To receive survivor’s benefits, a person must have been married for at least nine months. But because of state laws banning same-sex marriage, many people could not be married to their partner for that minimum time or could not marry them at all. The Supreme Court finally struck down all such laws in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.

Lambda filed its suits in 2018, one representing spouses who hadn’t been married for the minimum nine months and one on behalf of those who hadn’t been able to marry at all. Federal courts in Arizona and Washington ruled in 2020 that denial of the benefits was unconstitutional, but the Social Security Administration appealed.

That was when Donald Trump was president, and a right-wing Trump appointee, Andrew Saul, headed Social Security. A few months Joe Biden became president, he replaced Saul with Kilolo Kijakazi, who is more supportive of LGBTQ+ people, and the Social Security Administration withdrew the appeals.

Lambda Legal doesn’t have a precise count of the number of survivors eligible for the benefits, but Renn says it’s undoubtedly vast. And he wants to make sure they know they can apply.

“We face an enormous challenge as a community of reaching out to people who never applied because they thought it was futile and who are unaware that things have now changed,” he says. “We frankly need everyone’s help to get out the message:  There has been a massive, game-changing development, which should jolt people to take action. Winning the legal battle opened the door to benefits, but we now need people to walk through it.”

Lambda Legal has documents on its website providing guidance for applying for the benefits here and here. The Social Security Administration has also posted notices about each case here and here. You can also call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 or contact your local Social Security field office.

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