Social Security benefits open to survivors of same-sex couples who couldn't legally marry

Supporters of same-sex marriage unfurl a large rainbow pride flag near the Supreme Court, April 28, 2015 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: Supporters of same-sex marriage unfurl a large rainbow pride flag near the Supreme Court, April 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo credit Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Following years of class-action and federal lawsuits, the Social Security Administration has changed their policies to allow survivors of same-sex couples that can show they were in a committed relationship and would have married if laws allowed to collect survivor's benefits.

Appeals against Thornton v. Commissioner of Social Security and Ely v. Saul were dropped by the agency in November. This opens the door for a surviving partner of a same-sex relationship that previously applied for Social Security benefits on the record of their deceased partner, but was denied because they were never married.

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Of the 65 million Americans that receive Social Security benefits, nearly six million receive survivor's benefits, including children.

“Their whole purpose is to care for the survivors who lose their romantic and economic partners, a huge financial hardship,” Karen Loewy, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, said.

Survivors who are at least 60-years-old, or 50-years-old and disabled, can apply for their deceased spouse's Social Security benefits, or even apply for them temporarily and delay their own claims.

If the benefits are higher than the survivor's, or the survivor does not have the work history to qualify, they are eligible to apply. Temporarily receiving survivor's benefits can also allow their own benefits to increase until they reach of pass full retirement age.

The average survivor's benefit is about $1,467 a month, according to the Social Security Administration's reports.

“The surviving spouses can end up with a lot more income,” Trinh Phan, senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging, said.

Helen Thornton and Margery Brown started dating in 1979, and went on to spend 27 years together as a couple before Ms. Brown passed away from ovarian cancer in 2006 at just 50-years-old. They had bought a home together in Olympia, WA, shared a checking account, attended family and public events, and even raised a son who's birth certificate carries both their names.

Ms. Thornton applied for survivor's benefits in 2015 at her local Social Security office, shortly before she turned 60-years-old. She expected to be rejected, but still wanted to make a statement.

“I figured I’d be rejected,” Thornton said.

“I wanted Social Security to see that here was a lesbian couple that was together for 27 years, and here are the consequences of not having equal rights under the law.”

Ms. Thornton had worked for nonprofit organizations most of her life, while Ms. Brown was a staff member and instructor at The Evergreen State College, and earned much more income. When Ms. Thornton applied for her own benefits at age 62, she received just $953 per month, and had to begin pet-sitting for additional income.

Follow the Social Security's rule change, the survivor's benefits nearly doubled her monthly income to $1,849 per month. Ms. Thornton also received a retroactive lump sum payment of $72,000 for the years Social Security denied her application.

Additionally, same-sex couples who were married for less than nine months, the legal threshold for survivor’s benefits, before one spouse died have also become eligible to receive the benefits now.

“The challenge for Social Security, to do it right, is to acknowledge the different situations,” Phan said.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images