December 4, 2014 at 4:56 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Lesbian widow wins fight for Social Security benefits
Patricia Baker, Deborah Tevyah, GLAD, gay news, Washington Blade

Patricia “Pat” Baker and Deborah “Deb” Tevyah (Photo courtesy of GLAD)

A lesbian widow has prevailed in her fight to obtain Social Security benefits previously denied to her on the basis that her state of residence wouldn’t have recognized her same-sex marriage at the time of her spouse’s death, the LGBT group representing her announced Thursday.

The Social Security Administration paid Deborah Tevyaw, a 56-year-old Rhode Island resident, more than $30,000 in back benefits on Dec. 1 after a three-year battle, according to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. The settlement followed a lawsuit filed on her behalf in September by the New England-based LGBT group, but was reached through independent discussion with the agency as that litigation proceeded, the organization said.

The LGBT group sought spousal disability benefits and a lump sum death payment on behalf of Tevyaw from the Social Security Administration after the death of her spouse, Patricia Baker. A career Rhode Island corrections officer, Baker died in 2011 after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Although the couple married in Massachusetts in 2005, the Social Security Administration asserted Tevyaw wasn’t eligible for benefits at first on the basis of the Defense of Marriage Act. But even after the Supreme Court ruled Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, the agency continued to deny Tevyaw benefits on the basis that Rhode Island wouldn’t have recognized her marriage at the time of Baker’s death.

Contrary to the claims of the Social Security Administration, GLAD asserted the agency should recognize Tevyaw’s marriage because the law looks to whether courts in the state of domicile would find a couple “validly married.”

Carisa Cunningham, a GLAD spokesperson, said she could share no document on the agreement, but maintained the Social Security Administration changed the date at which they say Rhode Island would recognize as valid a same-sex marriage from another state. Although the agency originally claimed that Aug. 1, 2013 was that date, it now says Sept. 20, 2007 is the correct date.

According to her lawsuit, Tevyaw had been living on a monthly income of $732 for more than three years and was forced to sell her home she owned for more than 38 years because she can’t afford the mortgage.

“Nothing can bring back my wife and my best friend, but at least now Pat can rest in peace and I will be protected by the same safety net that is there for all other widows and widowers,” Tevyaw said in a statement.

GLAD is proceeding with the case because it thinks Rhode Island should have to recognize Massachusetts same-sex marriages back to May 2004 when gay nuptials were legalized in that state, not just 2007. Moreover, the agreement just affects Rhode Island, not any other state, and the organization is still using the litigation as a tool to ensure the flow of Social Security spousal benefits to same-sex couples throughout the country.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA, the Obama administration has determined that individuals in same-sex marriages are ineligible for spousal Social Security benefits — as well as spousal veterans benefits — if they live in a state without marriage equality. For those benefits, U.S. code looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married. But LGBT advocates, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Human Rights Campaign and GLAD, have insisted that continuing to withhold those benefits violates the spirit of the DOMA ruling.

When the lawsuit was filed, one of the paragraphs in the prayer for relief, according to GLAD, enabled the judge reviewing the case to make a ruling requiring the Obama administration to afford spousal Social Security benefits to married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states.

Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director, said in a statement the time has come for Social Security to begin payments to married same-sex couples throughout the country regardless of their state of residence.

“We are thrilled that the SSA has finally recognized that Rhode Island would have recognized Pat and Deb, and other married couples, as validly married at the time of Pat’s death in 2011,” Bonauto said. “At the same time, while Deb’s long battle is finally coming to an end, the SSA has no business assessing whether a couple’s state of residence would recognize their clearly valid marriage.”

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

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