AARP Eye Center
With the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples, LGBTQ spouses became entitled to the same Social Security family benefits as heterosexuals, under the same terms.
But those terms continued to freeze out many LQBTQ partners in long-term relationships who had been prevented from marrying — and thus establishing eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits upon their mate’s death — by pre-Obergefell state laws.
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That changed late last year, when the Social Security Administration (SSA) adopted new rules that will qualify many more older LGBTQ people for survivor benefits, and for the late-life financial stability those payments can help provide.
“It's no exaggeration to say that this development is seismic in nature,” says Peter Renn, senior counsel at the civil rights group Lambda Legal, which filed two class-action lawsuits that led to the changes. “It will make an enormous difference in the everyday lives of thousands of same-sex survivors who were wrongfully denied the benefits for which they paid.”
Nine-month marriage rule
In most circumstances, surviving spouses are eligible for benefits based on a late spouse’s earnings if they are 60 or older and had been legally married for at least nine months when their mate died. Depending on their age, survivors can receive between 71.5 percent and 100 percent of what the deceased was entitled to get from Social Security.
Strict application of those criteria in the wake of Obergefell meant many LGBTQ survivors could not receive benefits due to state marriage laws the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional.
“There was just a categorical decision by SSA that said, ‘Sorry, you have to be married for nine months and that it was unconstitutional in your state to do so is too bad,’ ” says William Alvarado Rivera, senior vice president for litigation for AARP Foundation, which filed amicus briefs in cases involving the length-of-marriage requirement.