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Lambda Legal asks court for relief of all same-sex couples denied Social Security benefits

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TUCSON — Lambda Legal asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona to provide relief to all surviving same-sex spouses denied equal access to social security survivor’s benefits, including through certification of a class action, on Tuesday.  

“Our clients and many others who were in loving, long-term, and committed relationships – in some cases for more than 40 years – have been denied equal access to these critical survivor’s benefits, paid for through a lifetime of work, based on circumstances wholly beyond their control,” Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn said in a press release.  “The government considers them legal strangers here, rather than widows and widowers, even if they married as soon as they were able to do so.”

Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit in November on behalf of a now 66-year-old gay man seeking spousal survivor’s benefits from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), which imposes a nine-month marriage requirement even where same-sex couples were not able to be married for nine months because of discriminatory marriage laws.

The legal advocacy group filed the motion for class certification in Ely v. Berryhill, the lawsuit it filed against SSA on behalf of Michael Ely, who married his partner of 43 years, James Taylor, immediately after Arizona’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples was struck down in 2014. Taylor died of cancer six months later. When Ely contacted SSA to begin the process of applying for survivor benefits, he was told that he did not qualify.

“It was such a shock, to be told your relationship of 43 years means nothing,” Ely said in the press release. “I lost the love of my life.  We got married as soon as we could.  Even though we were together for 43 years, and even though my husband paid into social security with every paycheck, I’m barred from receiving the same benefits as other widowers.  I know the pain I feel and can imagine the pain of others in the same situation as me.”

Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges lawsuit, is among thouse who would be affected. He married his husband, John Arthur, only three months before Arthur’s death. They had been together for more than 20 years and were able to get married only by taking a medically equipped plan to a state where it was legal. Lambda Legal said that Obergefell submitted a declaration in support of today’s class certification motion.

“Although marriage equality is the law of the land, people continue to suffer because of the government’s history of discrimination,” Obergefell said. “John and I moved mountains to marry, a marriage we were able to enjoy for only three short months, although we were together for more than twenty years.  Equality isn’t equality if the government can hold the length of your marriage against you when that same government barred you from marriage for more than two decades in the first place.”

Read about the case, Ely v. Berryhill, here: https://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases/ely-v-berryhill.

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