LGBTQ+ rights group Lambda Legal secured the benefits after filing two class-action lawsuits on behalf of same-gender couples.
Owing to bans on gay marriage (that are now defunct), same-gender partners could not access Social Security survivors benefits otherwise available to all married couples or those in domestic partnerships. However, the Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration announced last week that they dismissed appeals filed by the former Trump administration in two class-action lawsuits related to Social Security survivors benefits for same-sex partners and spouses. Now, queer couples will finally be able to file applications for survivors benefits. The announcement has been celebrated by LGBTQ+ rights groups and individuals alike, particularly those who will now be able to access benefits they were previously owed, NBC News reports.
Social Security survivors benefits will now be available to same-sex spouses and partners who had been denied access due to previous bans on gay marriage, officials say. - @NBCOUT https://t.co/Aq3sna8m5O— NBC News (@NBCNews) November 6, 2021
"We commend the Biden administration for respecting the constitutional rights of same-sex couples and choosing the right side of history," Lambda Legal counselor Peter Renn stated. "No one should continue to pay the price for past discrimination. Today’s development ensures that the door stays open for seniors who were wrongly locked out from critical benefits because of discriminatory laws." In 2018, the non-profit LGBTQ+ rights group filed two class-action lawsuits against the Social Security Administration. The first was filed on behalf of surviving same-gender partners who had been stopped from legally marrying their loved ones by bans on gay marriage.
Thanks to our clients Helen Thornton and Michael Ely, same-sex couples everywhere can access social security survivor’s benefits.— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) November 6, 2021
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest,” — Michael Elyhttps://t.co/Kmr3VAgCv7
The second was filed on behalf of folks who were allowed to marry but were prevented from being married for at least nine months (this is the minimum set by the Social Security Administration), again as a result of bans on same-gender marriage. Renn added that survivors benefits would now be equally available to everyone, "including potentially thousands of same-sex partners who could not marry their loved ones and may have thought it was futile to apply." The policy change will now benefit individuals like Helen Thornton, aged 66, who one of the lawsuits was filed on behalf of. Her partner of partner of 27 years, Marge Brown, died of cancer in 2006. Unfortunately, the couple was unable to get married before her death as Washington did not permit gay and lesbian couples to marry until December 2012. Furthermore, the state did not legally recognize domestic partnerships until 2007.
"For decades, same-sex couples paid into social security, just like different-sex couples," says @LambdaLegal's Karen Loewy. "The difference was, only one group always had the freedom to marry, leading to gross inequalities that continued to linger."https://t.co/Qv2EeMDENW— Shawna Chen (@shawnarchen) November 1, 2021
In 2015, the Social Security Administration rejected Thornton's application for survivors benefits when she first applied, just before her 60th birthday. Her battle is finally over, which has come as a huge relief to her. She began receiving Social Security survivors benefits in January this year due to a ruling passed in 2020 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. She said in an interview with NBC News, "It’s already made a huge difference in just being able to pay my bills and not have to worry so much about money. I was really glad that we made it a class-action case because obviously I didn't want it to benefit just me. That really didn't make sense." In a statement to Lamba Legal, Thornton said she felt relieved that she and her partner would not be "treated as legal strangers even in death." "I hope everyone who has been harmed by this problem, but never dared to apply for benefits, understands that this development is a game-changer," she stated. "The pathway is now finally open to everyone."
Surviving members of same-sex couples who lost their spouses before they were able to legally marry may be newly eligible for survivor benefits from Social Security, after years of difficulty accessing certain benefits. https://t.co/vonelZCTot— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 2, 2021