Same-Sex Couples Can Get Survivor Benefits After Biden Administration Drops Legal Challenges

A legal advocacy group Monday announced that more same-sex couples will be able to access Social Security survivor benefits, after the federal government dropped two of its appeals in court challenges.

Vin Testa, Washington, D.C., wave a rainbow flag at the Supreme Court on April 28, 2015 Getty Images

The Key Facts

Last year, a pair of Arizona federal judges ruled that the Social Security Administration should approve survivor benefit for certain same-sex spouses not meeting the program's marriage requirements. However, the Trump-era federal government appealed both the Arizona and Washington decisions. According to Lambda Legal (an LGBTQ rights group), the appeals were dismissed Monday by the Department of Justice as well as the Social Security Administration. The benefits had been extended to those who had been married for less than nine months prior to their spouses' deaths, as well as those who applied for survivor benefits before last November. However, Monday's dismissal means that anyone who was unable or unwilling to get married can still receive the benefits, Lambda Legal attorney Peter Renn explained Forbes. Renn believes this is a significant step because many spouses of the same sex didn't apply for survivor benefits from Social Security Administration as they believed their applications would not be accepted. Forbes reached out to the Social Security Administration and DOJ for clarification but they did not respond immediately.

Important Background

Widows and widowers may be eligible to receive a portion of the Social Security benefits of their deceased spouses in many cases. However, they must have been married for at most nine months prior to the person's death. The Supreme Court in Obergefell V. Hodges, which ruled that all state-level bans were invalid, made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. This meant that some couples could not meet the nine month rule due to laws later declared unconstitutional. Lambda Legal filed two lawsuits in 2018 on behalf of Helen Thornton and Michael Ely, who were denied survivorship benefits for their long-term partners. Renn called it yesterday's discrimination in an NBC News article. Renn explained to Forbes that these benefits are also important for practical reasons: Many widowers and widowers have suffered severe financial hardship due to inability access their spouse's Social Security.

Important Quote

Renn stated to Forbes that Renn believes it is a historic event that will have important practical effects on a large number of people. This is an extremely welcome relief for all those who were still negatively affected by the problem.

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Test for Biden administration: Same-sex spouse fights against government denial of death benefits (Washington Post).