When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of DOMA last week, it determined the federal government must recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples living in states where such unions are legal. Less clear is how same-sex couples will be treated who were legally married in a marriage equality state, but who reside in a state where same-sex marriages aren’t recognized.
Social Security’s current policy is to make their determination of eligibility based on the state in which an applicant resides, and not the state in which he or she was married. After the Supreme Court’s decision, the agency announced a comprehensive review of their policy. President Obama has said he thinks all married couples should be treated the same no matter where they live, but he qualified his statement, saying he was speaking as a president, not as a lawyer.
Now Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has asked the Social Security Administration to extend Social Security survival benefits to all married same sex couples and their children, no matter where they live. In a letter dated July 1, Senator Boxer told the Social Security Administration,
“I have met so many surviving spouses and family members of same-sex relationships who struggle needlessly after the passing of their family members. Access to Social Security benefits can often times mean the difference between keeping your home and losing it, or feeding your children and watching them go hungry.”
The Senator went on to ask, in the event the agency determined it could not legally extend benefits universally, that the agency notify congress ahead of implementing any new policy, so that lawmakers could address that inequality legislatively. Senator Boxer said one way they could immediately remedy such a decision, was by passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, reintroduced last week by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.) in the House, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in the Senate.
Read Senator Boxer’s letter:
July 1, 2013
The Honorable Carolyn W. Colvin
Social Security Administration
6401 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21235
Dear Acting Commissioner Colvin:
Until the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in last week’s historic United States v. Windsor ruling, federal law prevented the recognition of same-sex marriages for purposes of Social Security family and spousal benefits, resulting in the exclusion of millions of Americans from the same critical safety net programs that are made available to the families of heterosexual couples.
I have met so many surviving spouses and family members of same-sex relationships who struggle needlessly after the passing of their family members. Access to Social Security benefits can often times mean the difference between keeping your home and losing it, or feeding your children and watching them go hungry. Surviving spouses and children of same-sex marriages lose thousands of dollars in earned Social Security benefits every year because of the discriminatory policy mandated by the Defense of Marriage Act.
After last week’s Supreme Court ruling, I was pleased to learn that the Social Security Administration (SSA) took immediate steps to prepare for the changes that will be necessary to extend full federal benefits to all same-sex couples and their families. The SSA should be applauded for issuing emergency instructions to all field offices directing them to accept applications from same-sex couples and hold them until specific instructions on how the Court’s decision will be implemented are determined.
I was also encouraged by President Obama’s comments indicating that he believes all legally-married same-sex couples should have access to the same benefits, regardless of where they chose to live.
All federal agencies should endeavor to provide swift and equal access to programs and benefits for all same-sex couples, regardless of their state of residence, using existing administrative authorities. In instances where remedies are not available through executive action and will instead require specific changes to existing law, I urge you to notify Congress immediately so that the legislative process to address these issues can begin.
While I understand the SSA’s review of its legal authorities regarding same-sex couples must be comprehensive and thorough, I encourage you to work as expeditiously as possible for the millions of Americans who await your decisions.
United States Senator
The Social Security Administration promises they will respond to Senator Boxer’s concerns.
We invite you to sign up for our new mailing list, and subscribe to The New Civil Rights Movement via email or RSS.