Survivor’s Benefits Expansion
The Biden administration is doling out survivor benefits payments to partners of same-sex couples who experienced discrimination under previous unconstitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
According to Slate, the Social Security Administration is making sizeable payments to surviving individuals that were prevented from marrying their same-sex partner, thus excluding them from receiving survivor benefits after their partner passed away.
Under the new measure, surviving same-sex partners can begin collecting benefits once they reach the age of 60 (50 for surviving partners with disabilities). First-time applicants will receive monthly payments averaging just under $1,250, with payments rising after reaching full retirement age. Those that previously applied but were denied will be paid a lump sum payment retroactive to the date of their previous application alongside the monthly payments.
Only The Tip of The Iceberg
“We suspect there are thousands of people in these long-term relationships who never bothered to apply, because they thought it was futile,” Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal senior counsel, told The New York Times. The main worry now is that many eligible people aren’t even aware that they now qualify for survivor benefits. The SSA notified 700 people that their previously denied applications qualified for review, but only roughly 100 claims were processed by October 2021. Lambda Legal produced an FAQ to get the word out and help people navigate the claim process.
Lambda Legal attorney Peter Renn told Slate that the 700 figure “only represents the tip of the iceberg.” He continued, “Thousands of surviving same-sex partners are potentially sitting on millions of dollars in survivor’s benefits, for which their loved ones already paid, and which could dramatically impact their everyday lives.”
Getting the word out is especially important to Lambda Legal as it led the legal challenges that made it possible. The organization filed two lawsuits on behalf of widows and widowers that weren’t permitted to marry and whose partners died before same-sex marriage was legalized or were only married for nine months prior to a partner’s death.
Nine months is the minimum length a marriage must last for surviving partners to qualify for survivor’s benefits per SSA guidance, but Lambda Legal argued that the time limit should be altered if an unconstitutional law kept individuals from marrying at a time of their choice.
A federal judge sided with Lambda Legal in November 2020, declaring that payouts to the plaintiffs and other affected LGBTQ individuals should be made with haste. The Department of Justice settled and dismissed appeals lodged by the Trump administration in November 2021 and began sending out the first payments soon afterward.
Proving Your Relationship
Among those payments were a $90,000 retroactive payout and an $1,800 monthly payment to Anthony Gonzales, whose husband died in early 2014 after they were legally able to marry in August 2013. “We both believed that as gay men we should have the same rights as anybody else,” Gonzales said.
Trying to identify individuals who would have been married if laws were different poses another unique challenge to this process. The SSA built out a list of qualifiers that it believes point to a couple’s desire to be married as evaluation criteria.
Included in that list are if a couple lived together, raised a child together, held a commitment ceremony or produce evidence of joint bank accounts or mortgages – all similar criteria to how the SSA handles common-law marriages when determining benefits. “Even photos and love letters,” Loewy said. “There are ways to demonstrate that you were in a committed relationship.”
Survivor Benefits: Previously on Towleroad
Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes/Creative Commons