The Obama administration is set to afford the full benefits of marriage to married gay couples — including Social Security and veterans spousal benefits — following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of gay nuptials nationwide, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Thursday.
In an exclusive statement to the Washington Blade, Lynch confirmed full federal benefits are on their way to married same-sex couples now that all 50 states have marriage equality.
“Following the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Obergefell that every couple has the same right to participate in the institution of marriage, whether the partners are of the same sex or opposite sexes, I directed Justice Department staff to work with the agencies to ensure that the ruling be given full effect across the federal government,” Lynch said. “Thanks to their leadership and the quick work of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, today I am proud to announce that the critical programs for veterans and elderly and disabled Americans, which previously could not give effect to the marriages of couples living in states that did not recognize those marriages, will now provide federal recognition for all marriages nationwide.”
Although no formal memoranda on this change yet exists, Lynch added agencies are working toward “providing guidance to implement this change in law.”
Following the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, LGBT advocates and observers had assumed Social Security and veterans spousal benefits — which were previously denied to same-sex couples in states without marriage equality — would become available now that same-sex marriage was legal throughout the country, but the Obama administration hadn’t verified them until now.
Although the Obama administration has extended many federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples following the 2013 decision against the Defense of Marriage Act, the Justice Department determined it couldn’t afford certain Social Security and veterans spousal benefits to same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states. U.S. code for those benefits looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced benefits under its jurisdiction were on their way shortly after the more recent Supreme Court decision on marriage, but the Social Security Administration had yet to confirm a change. The announcement from Lynch verifies the legal basis is sound to extend veterans and Social Security benefits to married same-sex couples nationwide.
Lynch recalled after the DOMA decision, the Obama administration afforded many federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples “to the greatest extent possible under the law as it then stood,” but the ruling from the Supreme Court striking down all bans on same-sex marriage enables the federal government to finish the job.
“With the Supreme Court’s new ruling that the Constitution requires marriage equality, we have now taken the further step of ensuring that all federal benefits will be available equally to married couples in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Territories,” Lynch said. “The department will continue to work across the administration to fulfill our commitment to equal treatment for all Americans, including equal access to the benefits of marriage that the Obergefell decision guarantees.”
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, praised Lynch for announcing the change, saying it would benefit LGBT veteran families everywhere.
“We applaud Attorney General Lynch in working to ensure all of our nation’s veterans gain access to the full range of federal benefits they have earned serving our great nation,” Broadway-Mack said. “Considering many of these veterans and their families have been waiting months, even years, for access to their earned benefits, we urge the Department of Veterans Affairs to move swiftly in approving their applications now that their marriages are finally recognized.”
Legislation remains pending that would update U.S. code to ensure federal benefits of marriage flow to couples regardless of where they live, but hasn’t passed either chamber of Congress. The Respect for Marriage Act would ensure access of marriage benefits across the board, while the more specifically tailored Charlie Morgan Act and the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act would address the veterans benefits issue. The Social Security & Marriage Equality Act would handle Social Security benefits.
Prior to the Lynch announcement, the White House has said consistently it had no plans to change policy to ensure the flow of Social Security and veterans benefits to same-sex couples through administrative means. Lawsuits filed by Lambda Legal and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sought to compel the Obama administration to afford those spousal benefits to same-sex couples, but remains pending in the federal judiciary.
Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, said the announcement from the Justice Department is “a promising and long sought development,” but more action is needed to ensure the flow of benefits to same-sex couples.
“We still await confirmation that the agencies will apply Obergefell’s constitutional pronouncement to people like our clients Kathy Murphy and David Williams, whose spouses died before they could see the day the Supreme Court ruled that their marriages must receive legal respect across America,” Sommer said. “Kathy and David and many others like them deserve the Social Security and other benefits they applied for but were denied because their home states refused to respect their marriages and their right to equal dignity. We hope that the SSA and VA will not make same-sex spouses fight for basic legal protections any longer.”