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Survivors of Same-Sex Marriages and Some Long-Term Relationships Now Eligible for Social Security Benefits

Survivors of same-sex marriages and some long-term relationships where the couples couldn’t marry will now be able to share in the same Social Security benefits as everyone else in the country thanks to a new decision by the Biden administration.

Chris Johnson of the Los Angeles Blade reported that “a pair of surviving partners who were in long-term same-sex relationships — but unable to receive Social Security benefits because of now-overturned state marriage bans — are declaring victory in litigation seeking that compensation in the aftermath of the U.S. government withdrawing appeals of trial court decisions in their favor.”

According to Johnson, “the Biden administration dismissed on Monday, Nov. 1, appeals before the U.S. 9th Circuit of Court of Appeals in two separate cases filed by the LGBTQ group Lambda Legal, which argued in the nationwide class-action suits that access to benefits for these survivors is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling for marriage equality nationwide in 2015.”

In a statement released after the decision was announced, Karen Loewy, senior counsel and senior strategist for Lambda Legal, cheered the decision made by the U.S. Justice Department and the Social Security Administration to withdraw their appeal and end the case.

“For decades, same-sex couples paid into Social Security, just like different-sex couples. The difference was, only one group always had the freedom to marry, leading to gross inequalities that continued to linger,” Loewy said. “Today, that differential and discriminatory treatment conclusively ends, and surviving same-sex partners and spouses can securely access the benefits that they are owed, and that can be essential to their continued health and safety.”

The first lawsuit involved Helen Thornton of Washington State, who had a 27-year relationship with Marge Brown. Sadly, Brown passed away in 2006, 4 years before marriage equality passed in the state. In the other case, Michael Ely of Arizona sought benefits from his partner of 43 years, James “Spider” Taylor. Ely and Taylor were married in 2014, but Taylor passed away from cancer six months later, leaving Ely unable to access Social Security survivor benefits under state law because the couple’s marriage hadn’t lasted long enough.

“I am relieved that my 27-year relationship with Margie will finally be respected by the government and that we will not be treated as legal strangers even in death,” Thornton said following the conclusion of her case. “Marriage equality came too late for many of us, but it was not too late to fix this problem involving survivor’s benefits. 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. The pathway is now finally open to everyone.”

In his own statement, Ely added: “I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest. One of Spider’s final hopes was that I would be able to access these benefits. I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that these benefits are now finally secure, not only for me but for everyone else who found themselves in the same boat.”

Lambda Legal said that the successful conclusion of these cases means surviving same-sex partners barred from marriage will now have a path to federal benefits previously blocked by state laws, which interfered with these couples’ abilities to wed earlier in life.


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