December 16, 2013 at 12:43 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Social Security to process survivor benefits for gay couples
Proposition 8, Prop 8, DOMA, Defense of Marriage Act, Supreme Court, gay rights, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Married gay couples are now receiving Social Security benefits in the aftermath of the court decision against DOMA (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key).

The Obama administration on Monday announced the latest new policy in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling against Defense of Marriage Act: the Social Security Administration will now begin processing survivor’s benefits for certain married same-sex couples.

Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security, said in a statement that benefits will begin to flow to the surviving spouses of same-sex marriages — at least in some cases — in the same way they flow to survivors of opposite-sex marriages.

“I am pleased to announce that, effective today, Social Security is processing some widow’s and widower’s claims by surviving members of same-sex marriages and paying benefits where they are due,” Colvin said. “In addition, we are able to pay some one-time lump sum death benefit claims to surviving same-sex spouses.”

In August, the Social Security Administration announced similar policy on new benefits for same-sex couples in the aftermath of the court ruling on DOMA. But the announcement months ago pertained to retirement benefits, unlike the announcement Monday regarding survivor benefits.

But there’s a caveat to the new policy for a survivor of a same-sex marriage if both individuals in the relationship moved to a non-marriage equality state. Claims for survivor benefits or the one-time lump sum death benefit from in this situation will be placed on hold, according to Program Operations Manual System document accompanying the announcement. Social Security law looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a same-sex couple is married.

However, according to the guidance, a person in a same-sex marriage living in a non-marriage equality state is eligible for the one-time lump sum death benefit if the other person in the relationship died while living in another state that recognizes same-sex marriage.

Although the Social Security Administration is placing certain claims on hold, Colvin encourages all individuals who believe they may be eligible for Social Security “to apply now to protect against the loss of any potential benefits,” saying the agency will process these benefits upon further instructions.

The hold on survivor benefits claims from gay couples in non-marriage equality states is similar to current policy for retirement spousal benefits. Claims for retirement benefits from married gay couples in these states are still being placed on hold. The Obama administration has yet to articulate whether it’ll be able to process these claims in the aftermath of the court ruling against DOMA or if more legislative action is necessary.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the announcement is welcome news, but acknowledged more action is necessary to provide appropriate benefits for same-sex couples.

“This is welcome news from the Social Security Administration but as they point out, this is not the end of the road in applying the Windsor decision to benefits owed to same-sex couples,” Cole-Schwartz said. “We look forward to continuing our work with them to ensure that as many benefits as possible are made available to couples expeditiously.

In the statement, Colvin said her agency will continue to work the Justice Department to resolve legal issues for married same-sex couples in the aftermath of the court ruling against DOMA.

“As I stated shortly after the Supreme Court decision on Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, our goal is to treat all Americans with dignity and respect,” Colvin said. “We ask for continued patience from the public as we work closely with the Department of Justice to develop policies that are legally sound so we can process claims.”

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

  • You must have been married for at least 10 years to claim a survivor's benefit anyway. That leaves out many currently married same sex couples for quite while.

  • I personally believe that sooner or later we WILL see a case brought before the Supreme Court that will finally require enforcement of the Official Acts clause of the Constitution. Truth is, any state who refuses to recognize the official acts of any other state is in violation of the Constitution. We've just been ignoring it.

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