TUCSON — On Wednesday, a federal district court ruled that the U.S. Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) refusal to consider the claims for survivor’s benefits by same-sex spouses who were unable to be married for nine months because of state marriage bans is unconstitutional.
According to a Lambda Legal press release, many couples who wed as soon as they could were denied benefits because they had not been married nine months when a partner died.
“This is a tremendous victory for many surviving same-sex spouses nationwide who have been locked out of critical benefits because they were unlawfully barred from marriage for most of their relationships,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn. “Many same-sex couples were in loving, long-term, and committed relationships for decades – and they shouldn’t be treated as strangers in death simply because they were unable to marry for most of that time. No one should be penalized for being the victim of discrimination. The denial of access to these critical benefits can have dire consequences, with some of our class members experiencing homelessness.”
“It is gratifying to have the court today recognize the 43 years of love and commitment that my late husband and I shared, rather than looking only at the date on a marriage certificate that we were denied for most of our lives,” said plaintiff Michael Ely. “My late husband, who went by the nickname ‘Spider,’ was the love of my life, and we got married as soon as the law permitted. My husband paid into social security with every paycheck, and I know he can rest easier now knowing that I, at last, will start receiving the same benefits as other widowers.”
The case, Ely v. Saul, was filed in November 2018 by Lambda Legal. The court also certified the case as a national class action, opening up the decision to couples across the country in a similar situation.
One class member, Josh Driggs, from Phoenix, Arizona, already experienced homelessness on two separate occasions after Social Security denied him survivor’s benefits based on his more than 40-year relationship with his husband, Glenn Driggs, and he fell behind in his rent without the financial protection of those benefits.
“While these monthly benefits may seem modest, they can make the life-changing difference between having enough food, medication, or a roof over one’s head,” Driggs said. “For me, the denial left me out in the cold, literally. I had to leave the home that my husband and I had shared, and I became homeless twice – once on the eve of Thanksgiving, which I spent in my van in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I’m relieved to know that no one else in our community will have to experience that indignity simply because of who they loved.”