Social Security benefits for same-sex couples in legal limbo in U.S.

Conflicting messages on date of validity
By Mark Miller
|payroll-reporter.com|Last Updated: 12/14/2015

CHICAGO (Reuters) — Nearly six months after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling making same-sex marriage the law of the land, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is dragging its feet on implementing changes to its benefit eligibility policies.

Some same-sex spouses have been caught up in a legal limbo while the government sorts out eligibility questions about retroactive spousal benefit claims.

The outcome is important, because spousal benefits are among the most valuable features of Social Security.

Some retroactive benefit cases involve widowed spouses who were married before the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. In others, same-sex married couples who lived in states that did not recognize their marriages have been seeking to claim benefits going back to the date they originally filed their claims.

Two people who have been pursuing litigation against the Social Security Administration learned only in the last few weeks that their benefit claims will be paid.

The SSA has sent mixed messages about its overall policy.

Its website (http://1.usa.gov/1XEowSm) states that it is working with the Department of Justice to analyze the Obergefell decision, and encourages people who think they may be entitled to benefits to file immediately. Doing so preserves the filing date, which the SSA uses to determine the possible start of benefits.

But the SSA also has a benefit determination chart on its site (http://1.usa.gov/1TrM3Wb) that displays when same-sex marriages were permitted in various states, as well as when a state recognized same-sex marriages from other states or territories.

That runs contrary to an “emergency message” the SSA sent to field offices in September that instructs staff to process pending claims from any valid marriage and to disregard the date when a state recognized marriages from other states or territories.

The Social Security Administration states that it is consulting with the Department of Justice to update its process instructions regarding same-sex couples, and "will provide instructions for any remaining issues as soon as they are finalized."

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is still pushing for the SSA to agree to apply the Obergefell ruling across the board in retroactive cases.

“All around the country, people should be regarded as married as of the date when they entered a valid marriage,” said Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, which is representing the advocacy group in one of the cases. “The Social Security Administration has been inexplicably slow in making this clear.”

Webster Phillips, a senior policy analyst for the committee and a former SSA employee, acknowledged that bureaucratic wheels can grind slowly, especially when multiple agencies of government are involved.

But he does give the SSA credit for reaching out in the wake of Obergefell to inform people of their rights under the ruling.

Among the widowed spouses who recently prevailed in court, Dave Williams, who now lives in Chicago, was contesting the SSA's denial of his claim. In 2008, he had married Carl Allen in California, but the couple was living in Arkansas when Allen died in 2010.

Williams, 58, applied for retroactive disability benefits due to Carl and a lump-sum death benefit, but the SSA rejected the claim because Arkansas had not recognized their marriage as legal before the Supreme Court ruling.

The settlement will only be worth about US$4,000 to Williams, but he is savoring the moral victory.

“Obviously, getting all these attorneys involved well exceeded the value of my claim, but I had a point and I wanted to prove it," he said. "I knew how unfair this was, and that if I pursued this, hopefully many other people will benefit."

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