Social Security survivor benefits are one of the most valuable types of income the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides. These benefits are intended to ensure a surviving spouse isn’t faced with financial disaster when a higher-earning partner passes away.
Unfortunately, millions of Americans have been unable to access survivor benefits because they were prevented for many years from entering into a legal marriage with the partner of their choosing. This is the situation many older LGBTQ individuals face, because same-sex marriage was not legalized until it was too late for them.
The good news is, the SSA has now opened the door to providing survivor benefits to some widowed partners who were denied full marriage rights. Here’s what you need to know about this new process.
Here’s how — and why — Social Security is allowing survivor benefits to LGBTQ couples
Generally, in order to get survivor benefits from Social Security, you must have been married when your partner passed away and for at least nine months before. Or you must have been married for at least 10 years before divorcing and must not have remarried before the age of 60 (or age 50 if disabled).
Tragically, many same-sex partners weren’t able to get married despite spending their lives in committed relationships — and they weren’t eligible for survivor benefits as a result. Some people who’d been deprived of their right to marriage took steps to change that Social Security rule, and they’ve been successful.
Two class action lawsuits were formed by those who’d lost their same-sex partners prior to being able to legally marry. The cases, Thorton vs. Commissioner of Social Security and Ely v. Saul, both successfully challenged current rules and argued survivor benefits should extend to those denied the right to wed their partners.
While the Trump administration was appealing the results of both class-action lawsuits, the Social Security Administration dropped both appeals in November due to a change in policy under the Biden administration.
As a result, the Social Security Administration is now permitting same-sex partners to receive Social Security survivor benefits — even if they were not married or were married for less than the requisite nine months. These benefits are available provided the applicant is able to show they were in a committed relationship with a deceased same-sex partner. This evidence can come in the form of a shared home; a commitment ceremony; joint bank accounts, mortgages or leases; or even pictures and letters.
Claiming survivor benefits can provide an important income source for seniors
Survivor benefits often provide much more income for seniors if their partner was the higher earner. They can also become available earlier than Social Security retirement benefits — as early as age 50 for disabled spouses and at an even younger age when caring for a minor child of a deceased partner.
The fact that same-sex partners will now be able to gain access to these benefits could be a huge financial boon. If you fit within this category and were denied the legal right to marry, it’s crucial that you understand your new rights and make sure to claim the benefits owed to you by presenting evidence of your partnership to the Social Security Administration.
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