Same-Sex Marriage and Social Security Benefits

Posted on Jul 05, 2013

In a landmark decision the Supreme Court found DOMA, unconsititutional reasoning citing among other reasons recognizing same sex marriage was about fairness and human dignity. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law, which effectively refused to recognize same-sex marriages under federal law.This law, while controversial for some, hardly caused any conflict with state law until 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples.  As more states have begun to recognize same-sex marriage, more same-sex couples had found themselves in a situation where their marriage was recognized by their state law, but not recognized under federal law.  This had a widespread effect on everything from taxes, to healthcare, to Social Security benefits.  The Supreme Court recently held that this provision in DOMA was unconstitutional—that federal law could not refuse to recognize marriages that were considered valid under the law where the person resides. Justice Kennedy writing for a majority of the court found, " that the Defense of Marriage Act must fail because it denies same sex couples the dignity that the states indented them to have and sets them apart in a way that is a denial of the due process and equal protection principles guaranteed under the Constitution."

Marital status can be important for Social Security purposes in order to receive spousal benefits and survivor’s benefits.   The Social Security Administration, as well as several other federal programs, relies upon state law to determine whether an individual is married.  The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down that portion of DOMA that prohibited federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriage means that Social Security will determine marital status based on the states’ laws.   If a person was considered married in the state where they live, Social Security should consider them married.

It is a little less clear how the Supreme Court’s decision will affect those couples that were married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, but now live in a state that does not.  Under the current regulations, Social Security looks at the state law where the person resides, rather than where they were married. It appears right now that those couples who live in states where same-sex marriage is recognized would be entitled to spousal benefits and survivor’s benefits, but those couples who do not would not be entitled to the federal benefits.If you live in Iowa you would be eligible for benefits and in Nebraska you would not be eligible.

 

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Timothy J. Cuddigan
Omaha Social Security and Veterans Disability Lawyer With Over 40 Years Experience