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Married and Gay, but Not Eligible for Full Benefits

Court overturns same-sex marriage ban. Will all couples enjoy the same safety net?

Two women hold hands after getting married at city hall in San Francisco, California.

— Kimberly White/Corbis

  • Social Security survivor benefits. If a working spouse in a heterosexual marriage dies, the nonworking spouse receives the partner’s full Social Security benefits. A surviving spouse who earns less in Social Security automatically qualifies for the deceased spouse’s higher benefit. Even ex-spouses qualify — as long as they are man and woman. Not so the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage, like Herb Burtis.

    According to the SAGE report, the lack of survivor benefits can be especially punitive, denying a surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage up to $28,152 a year. Overall, the report found, same-sex couples receive as much as 31.5 percent less in Social Security benefits than comparable heterosexual couples.

  • Medicaid long-term care benefits. When one married spouse becomes seriously ill or incapacited and requires long-term care, Medicaid policies are designed to prevent the healthy spouse from being impoverished by the high costs of such care. These protections do not exist for same-sex couples. In a heterosexual marriage, for example, if one spouse enters a nursing home, the other spouse can keep the couple’s home, household goods and one car. A same-sex spouse risks losing it all, depending on who officially owns the property.

  • Veterans benefits. Heterosexual spouses of veterans qualify for bereavement counseling, death pensions, home loan guarantees and even a burial flag. They can also be buried beside their husband or wife in a veterans’ cemetery. Not so same-sex spouses. Darrell Hopkins, 65, served in Vietnam, earning two Bronze Stars, the Vietnam Campaign Ribbon and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Palm. In 2004, he married Tom Casey in Massachusetts. Hopkins can be interred in a national veterans’ cemetery; his husband is barred from being interred beside him.

  • Tax policy. Same-sex couples who are married typically have to create two sets of income tax forms: one for the state, which recognizes their marriage, and another for the federal government, which does not. They often have to pay more in taxes, as well. When an employer extends benefits such as health insurance to a heterosexual spouse, for example, the value of those benefits is not taxable. Same-sex partners must pay taxes.

  • Inheritance laws. Property passes automatically to a surviving spouse in a heterosexual marriage. Not so for same-sex couples. Many such couples must make complex and often expensive legal arrangements to ensure that decision-making and inheritance passes to a surviving spouse. “When I was married to a woman, we never had to think about any of this,” says Gordon Herzog, a financial manager in Annapolis, Md. After his marriage split up, he met and married Reed Erickson, an architectural designer. “Now we have to worry about everything from inheritance to medical decisions. We’ve had to pay a lot of money to draw up legal documents just to ensure that we’ll be able to visit each other if we’re ever hospitalized.”

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