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More same-sex couples eligible for Social Security survivors benefits

Supporters rally for Social Security benefits for same sex couples in Springfield, Ill., at a marriage equity event in 2013.
Seth Perlman
Supporters rally for Social Security benefits for same sex couples in Springfield, Ill., at a marriage equity event in 2013.

More same-sex couples will now be able to receive Social Security survivors benefits.

Previously, the surviving spouse or partner was eligible only if the couple had been married for nine months, although earlier bans on same-sex marriage made that time frame impossible to meet.

Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights group, filed a pair of class action lawsuits on behalf of two couples in 2018 seeking to overturn the requirement. Lower courts had ruled in favor of the couples, but those decisions were appealed by the Trump administration. The Biden administration had taken no action on the cases.

But Lambda Legal says the Justice Department and the Social Security Administration on Monday dropped their appeals.

"The relief of today's action by the federal government is almost palpable," said Lambda Legal senior counsel Karen Loewy in a statement. "For decades, same-sex couples paid into social security, just like different-sex couples. The difference was, only one group always had the freedom to marry, leading to gross inequalities that continued to linger. Today, that differential and discriminatory treatment conclusively ends, and surviving same-sex partners and spouses can securely access the benefits that they are owed and that can be essential to their continued health and safety."

Lambda filed suit on behalf of Helen Thornton, who the group says sought survivors benefits after her partner of 27 years, Marge Brown, died in 2006, before same-sex couples in the state of Washington were legally able to marry.

The other suit was filed on behalf of Michael Ely, who married his partner of 43 years, James "Spider" Taylor after Arizona's ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in 2014. Taylor died six months later.

In the Lambda statement, Thorton said, "Marriage equality came too late for many of us, but it was not too late to fix this problem involving survivor's benefits. I hope everyone who has been harmed by this problem, but never dared to apply for benefits, understands that this development is a game-changer. The pathway is now finally open to everyone."

Ely said, "I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest. One of Spider's final hopes was that I would be able to access these benefits. I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that these benefits are now finally secure, not only for me but for everyone else who found themselves in the same boat."

The Social Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment.

The Justice Department would not comment but pointed to a letter then-acting Solicitor General Brian Fletcher sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month, stating that DOJ would not appeal the lower courts decisions.

However, it added, "The Department continues to believe that the nine-month duration-of-marriage requirement for widow's and widower's insurance benefits is constitutional, and the Department will defend the constitutionality of that requirement in the future. Nonetheless, the Department has concluded that continued litigation of that question is not warranted in the particular circumstances presented by these cases and has instead agreed to a settlement."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.