Widower's U.S. court win secures social security benefits for LGBT+ couples

by Oscar Lopez | @oscarlopezgib | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 May 2020 19:12 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Gay married couple show their wedding rings for a photo in Denver, Colorado, U.S. November 28, 2017. Photo taken November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Image Caption and Rights Information

Many gay and lesbian couples were denied social security benefits if their partner died before they'd been married nine months

By Oscar Lopez

MEXICO CITY, May 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gay and lesbian spouses in the United States can claim social security survivor's benefits even if they were married for less than nine months, a federal court has ruled, overturning a requirement that left some widows and widowers homeless.

The U.S. District Court for Arizona said that it was unconstitutional for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to deny benefits to LGBT+ spouses wed for less than nine months as same-sex unions were illegal in some U.S. states until 2015.

"The fight for nationwide marriage equality was hard-fought, but the fight for true equality under the law continues," openly gay Democratic congressman Sean Maloney told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

"This victory reaffirms that the protections offered with marriage apply to all couples - no matter who they are or who they love."

The number of U.S. states that allowed gay marriage increased gradually from 2004 until 2015, when it was legalised nationwide by the Supreme Court, striking down all remaining state bans.

The lawsuit was filed by LGBT+ advocacy group Lambda Legal on behalf of 67-year-old Michael Ely, whose partner died of cancer after six months of marriage. The couple had wed one month after Arizona's gay marriage ban was struck down in 2014.

"It is gratifying to have the court today recognise the 43 years of love and commitment that my late husband and I shared, rather than looking only at the date on a marriage certificate that we were denied for most of our lives," said Ely.

"My husband paid into social security with every paycheck, and I know he can rest easier now knowing that I, at last, will start receiving the same benefits as other widowers," he said in a statement.

The court certified the case as a nationwide class action, meaning other gay and lesbian spouses across the country who lost their wife or husband less than nine months after being married may now make similar claims.

"This is a tremendous victory for many surviving same-sex spouses nationwide who have been locked out of critical benefits because they were unlawfully barred from marriage for most of their relationships," said Lambda Legal attorney Peter Renn.

"No one should be penalised for being the victim of discrimination," Renn said in emailed comments, adding that some surviving LGBT+ spouses had become homeless after being denied benefits.

Related stories

China's same-sex couples heartened by property protection rights in new civil code

Costa Rica allows same-sex marriages in a first for Central America

(Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.