Surviving partners of same-sex relationships whose partner died before they were legally able to marry can now apply for social security survivor’s benefits, regardless of how long ago their partner died.
Previously, only widowed spouses have been eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits. These were extended to same-sex couples when marriage equality passed in 2015, but not to unwed life partners. Now, surviving partners who couldn't legally marry before 2015, or were married for less than nine months when their spouse died, are eligible for survivor’s benefits.
The new law is expected to affect thousands of LGBTQ Americans, mostly seniors, a population with a higher poverty rate than average. Some survivors may be eligible for retroactive payment of benefits.
To qualify, applicants must show that they were in a committed relationship and would have married if possible, which may present a challenge to some.
Social Security survivor’s benefits are available starting at age 60, or 50 for persons with disabilities. A survivor can apply for their deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits if these are either higher than their own or if they do not have the work history to qualify. A survivor can also apply for benefits temporarily and delay claiming their own.
The extension of these benefits to same-sex survivors follows a landmark victory in two nationwide class actions (Ely v. Saul and Thornton v. Saul), filed in 2018 and won in 2021 by Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest LGBTQ legal advocacy organization in the U.S. The Department of Justice and Social Security Administration had appealed the verdicts to the Ninth Circuit under the previous presidential administration but dismissed the appeals in November 2021.
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