More same-sex couples will now be able to receive Social Security survivor benefits.
Previously, the surviving spouse or partner was only eligible if the couple had been married for nine months, although previous bans on same-sex marriage made that time frame impossible.
Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights group, filed two class action lawsuits on behalf of two couples in 2018 to overturn the claim. Lower courts had ruled in the couples’ favor, but those decisions were being appealed by the Trump administration. The Biden administration had taken no action against the cases.
But Lambda Legal says the Justice Department and the Social Security Administration withdrew their appeals on Monday.
“The relief from today’s action by the federal government is almost palpable,” Lambda Legal senior counsel Karen Loewy said in a statement. “For decades, same-sex couples paid into Social Security just like opposite-sex couples. The difference was that only one group always had the freedom to marry, leading to gross inequalities that persisted. Today, that differential and discriminatory treatment permanently ends, and surviving same-sex partners and spouses can safely access the benefits they are owed and which may be essential to their continued health and safety.”
Lambda filed suit on behalf of Helen Thornton, who, according to the group, was seeking survivor benefits after her partner of 27, Marge Brown, died in 2006, before same-sex couples could legally marry in Washington state.
The other charge was filed on behalf of Michael Ely, who was married to his 43-year-old partner, James “Spider” Taylor, after the same-sex marriage ban in Arizona was overturned in 2014. Taylor died six months later.
In the Lambda statement, Thorton said: “For many of us, marriage equality came too late, but it was not too late to solve this survivor benefit problem. I hope everyone who has been harmed by this problem, but never dared to apply benefits, understands that this development is a game-changer. The path is now finally open to everyone.”
Ely said: “It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest. One of Spider’s last hopes was that I would be able to access these benefits. I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that these benefits are now finally safe, not just for me, but for everyone else who was in the same boat.”
The Social Security Service did not respond to a request for comment.
The Justice Department declined to comment, but pointed to a letter then-Solicitor General Brian Fletcher sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month saying that the DOJ would not appeal decisions of lower courts.
However, it added: “The ministry continues to believe that the nine-month marriage requirement for widows and widowers insurance is constitutional, and the ministry will defend the constitutionality of that requirement going forward. Nevertheless, the ministry has concluded that continuing the process of that question is not warranted in the particular circumstances of these cases and has instead agreed to a settlement.”