The Justice Department and the Social Security Administration has dismissed their Ninth Circuit appeals – previously filed under the Trump Administration – to a lawsuit over LGBTQ seniors’ rights to Social Security benefits for survivors, clearing the way for possibly thousands of LGBTQ seniors to now be eligible to receive benefits.
Two widows filed for benefits of partners who had died before marriage equality was legalized in 2015 via a landmark Supreme Court decision. A Trump-era policy prevented the collection of benefits by seniors whose partners died before being able to marry.
The cases were filed by Lambda Legal in 2018 on behalf of two surviving partners, and had won two lower court decisions already.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) requires couples to be married for nine months to be eligible for survivor’s benefits, but many LGBTQ couples were unable to marry before it was legal, despite having lifelong relationships.
Thornton v. Saul was filed on behalf of Helen Thornton, whose partner of 27 years, Marge Brown, died in 2006, nine years before marriage equality was legalized nationwide.
Ely v. Saul was filed on behalf of Michael Ely, who was able to marry his partner of 43 years in 2014 when Arizona’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples was reversed. However, the couple was only married for six months before Ely’s partner, James Taylor, died of cancer. Despite their decades-long relationships, Ely was denied benefits by the SSA because their marriage fell just three months short of the requirement for benefits.
Now, that policy has been reversed, and both couples will be awarded survivors’ benefits of their partners, along with establishing a new precedent for other seniors who file.
“This is a historic development with immense implications: Survivor’s benefits are now equally available to everyone, including potentially thousands of same-sex partners who could not marry their loved ones and may have thought it was futile to apply,” stated Lambda Legal on its website announcing the decision.
Both class actions won their first case in the lower court but were appealed by the Trump Administration at the time. The Biden Administration’s decision to drop the appeals makes the lower court decision on the matter final.
“The relief of today’s action by the federal government is almost palpable,” said Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Seniors Strategist Karen Loewy. “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. 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.”
For more information on filing for Social Security survivors’ benefits, Lambda Legal provides a FAQ.
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest,” said plaintiff Michael Ely.