June 29, 2015 at 5:07 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
VA benefits confirmed for gay couples after marriage ruling

Brandon Morgan, Dalan Wells, gay news, Washington Blade

Dalan Wells and Sgt. Brandon Morgan are a gay couple. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage across the country, the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday confirmed it’s set to issue spousal benefits to gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans regardless of their state of residence.

Walinda West, a VA spokesperson, told the Washington Blade the ruling striking down all state bans on same-sex marriage allows the department to “recognize the same-sex marriage of all veterans” anywhere in the United States.

“VA will work quickly to ensure that all offices and employees are provided guidance on implementing this important decision with respect to all programs, statutes, and regulations administered by VA,” West said.

But until new guidance is issued, West said the VA will for the time being will wait to adjudicate all claims for same-sex marriages if they could’t be granted immediately based on prior guidance.

Following the 2013 decision against the Defense of Marriage Act, the Obama administration extended many federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, but the Justice Department determined it couldn’t afford certain veteran spousal benefits to same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states. U.S. code for these benefits looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married.

The administration developed a workaround for some benefits, although it still wouldn’t afford important benefits like ChampVA (health care for spouses of disabled veterans), higher disability compensation for disabled veterans with dependents, full access to VA home loans and many survivor benefits for widows.

Legislation introduced Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) sought to extend these veterans benefits to same-sex couples, but saw no traction under Republican control in Congress. The American Military Partner Association and Lambda Legal had filed litigation seeking these benefits. The decision in the marriage-equality cases came down before that lawsuit could advance.

Now that the Supreme Court has issued a ruling against all state bans on same-sex marriage, there are no more states without marriage equality in which the VA could withhold benefits.

Matt Thorn, interim executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, praised the VA for announcing the change.

“This is a critical step that will help to make sure that every lesbian, gay and bisexual U.S. veteran and their family has the same access to the benefits that they have earned in their service to our country,” Thorn said. “Our LGB veterans should never have been denied these benefits because of the state they live in or because of their sexual orientation. LGB veterans and their families deserve and will now have the respect, dignity and protections that they have earned.”

Prior to the ruling, OutServe-SLDN wrote a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald calling on the full extension of spousal veterans benefits to same-sex couples across the country if the Supreme Court were to rule for marriage equality.

Also praising the extension of benefits was Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association.

“We are thrilled the VA is acting so quickly to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling and are ready to do right by all our nation’s veterans,” Broadway-Mack said. “These are important benefits our nation’s veterans have earned and it was unconscionable that some were denied based solely on where they lived.”

But spousal veterans benefits weren’t the only federal benefits of marriage denied to same-sex couples in states without marriage equality prior to the ruling from the Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage. Also denied to couples in these states were Social Security spousal retirement and survivor spousal benefits.

Although the Social Security Administration has said its analyzing the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, it didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for an update in the aftermath of the announcement from the VA.

Neither the White House, nor the Justice Department responded to the Blade’s request to comment on whether the full federal benefits of marriage are guaranteed to same-sex couples in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision.

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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