July 1, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Boxer seeks full extension of Social Security benefits
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is calling on Social Security to implement fully benefits for married gay couples (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is calling on Social Security to implement full benefits for married gay couples. (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is calling on the Social Security Administration to provide survivor benefits for married same-sex couples wherever they move in the country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a letter dated July 1, Boxer asks Social Security Administration Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin to use “administrative authorities” to extend benefits to the fullest extent possible following the Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of DOMA.

“All federal agencies should endeavor to provide swift and equal access to programs and benefits for all same-sex couples, regardless of their state of residence, using existing administrative authorities,” Boxer said.

Social Security survivor benefits are among the benefits that are in question for legally married same-sex couples post-DOMA. Social Security law looks to the state where a couple lives, not where a couple is married. That means a gay couple that marries in New York but moves to Florida may not be eligible if they apply for those benefits there.

In the event that the Social Security Administration believes it can’t offer those benefits administratively, Boxer asks the agency to notify Congress so lawmakers can advance a legislative solution to the issue.

Boxer, one of 14 U.S. senators who voted against DOMA in 1996, said she’s spoken with same-sex couples and heard about the harm caused by withholding Social Security survivor benefits.

“I have met so many surviving spouses and family members of same-sex relationships who struggle needlessly after the passing of their family members,” Boxer writes. “Access to Social Security benefits can often times mean the difference between keeping your home and losing it, or feeding your children and watching them go hungry.”

In her letter, Boxer says she understands the Social Security Administration has already taken some action. The senator says she learned the agency “took immediate steps” to prepare for changes and issued “emergency instructions” to field offices directing them to accept applications from gay couples and hold them until further guidance.

Like Boxer, LGBT advocates have been calling on the Obama administration to interpret the ruling against DOMA broadly so married gay couples will have federal benefits no matter where they move in the country.

During his trip to Africa, President Obama seemed sympathetic to calls when responding to a question about DOMA implementation during a news conference.

“It’s my personal belief — but I’m speaking now as a president as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple,” Obama said. “But I’m speaking as a president, not a lawyer.”

After the DOMA ruling, Obama said he directed U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to work with Cabinet officials to prepare for implementing benefits for same-sex couples. Changes are expected to be made on a rolling basis as quickly as practicable.

Mark Hinkle, a Social Security spokesperson, noted the process Obama has set up in response to the Boxer letter.

“The president has directed the Attorney General to work with other members of his Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, and its implications for federal benefits and obligations – including benefits administered by this agency – is implemented swiftly and smoothly,” Hinkle said. “We look forward to working with the Department of Justice to do so.”

Hinkle added the Social Security Administration will respond directly to Boxer with regard to the letter.

In the event that some benefits still aren’t available even in the aftermath of the court ruling, one legislative solution that is available is the Respect for Marriage Act, which was introduced last week by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The “certainty provision” in the bill would ensure federal benefits continue to flow to married same-sex couples wherever they live in the United States.

The full letter from Boxer follows:

July 1, 2013

The Honorable Carolyn W. Colvin

Acting Commissioner

Social Security Administration

6401 Security Boulevard

Baltimore, MD 21235

Dear Acting Commissioner Colvin:

Until the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in last week’s historic United States v. Windsor ruling, federal law prevented the recognition of same-sex marriages for purposes of Social Security family and spousal benefits, resulting in the exclusion of millions of Americans from the same critical safety net programs that are made available to the families of heterosexual couples.

I have met so many surviving spouses and family members of same-sex relationships who struggle needlessly after the passing of their family members.  Access to Social Security benefits can often times mean the difference between keeping your home and losing it, or feeding your children and watching them go hungry.  Surviving spouses and children of same-sex marriages lose thousands of dollars in earned Social Security benefits every year because of the discriminatory policy mandated by the Defense of Marriage Act.

After last week’s Supreme Court ruling, I was pleased to learn that the Social Security Administration (SSA) took immediate steps to prepare for the changes that will be necessary to extend full federal benefits to all same-sex couples and their families.  The SSA should be applauded for issuing emergency instructions to all field offices directing them to accept applications from same-sex couples and hold them until specific instructions on how the Court’s decision will be implemented are determined.

I was also encouraged by President Obama’s comments indicating that he believes all legally-married same-sex couples should have access to the same benefits, regardless of where they chose to live.

All federal agencies should endeavor to provide swift and equal access to programs and benefits for all same-sex couples, regardless of their state of residence, using existing administrative authorities.  In instances where remedies are not available through executive action and will instead require specific changes to existing law, I urge you to notify Congress immediately so that the legislative process to address these issues can begin.

While I understand the SSA’s review of its legal authorities regarding same-sex couples must be comprehensive and thorough, I encourage you to work as expeditiously as possible for the millions of Americans who await your decisions.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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