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More LGBTQ couples can access Social Security survivor benefits. The challenge is getting the word out.

(Washington Post illustration)
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When Jim Martin’s partner, Ray Gannoe, fell ill with a broken foot, arthritis and a recovery from spinal surgery in the early 2000s, Martin became his full-time caregiver — managing Gannoe’s many doctor’s appointments as well as cleaning and maintaining the home the two shared in Arizona.

Although Martin wasn’t working at the time, their income from Veterans Affairs for Gannoe’s three decades of military service kept them afloat, Martin said. That is, until Gannoe passed away in 2011 from congestive heart failure.

Because the two were never able to marry legally, payment from VA stopped when Gannoe died, and Martin wasn’t eligible for survivor benefits paid through the Social Security Administration. Martin’s monthly income decreased to $800 and mostly came from federal welfare, he said. For heterosexual couples, the only provision to receive Social Security survivor benefits is to have been married for at least nine months in most cases.

“If I was a woman, and he was a man, it would have been totally different,” Martin said.

In 2015, the landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges granted LGBTQ couples the right to marry — and allowed them to receive for the first time many federal economic and social benefits. But until now, economic benefits paid out to survivors didn’t apply to LGBTQ people who would have liked to marry but couldn’t or who did marry for a brief period of time before a spouse passed away.

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Now, a renewed push from the Biden administration to fulfill a federal judge’s ruling has removed some of the economic barriers Martin faced in the years after Gannoe’s death. In November, the SSA dropped its Trump-era appeals in two class-action lawsuits filed by the LGBTQ legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal, resulting in the broadening of who is able to access survivor benefits.

The SSA now allows LGBTQ individuals to receive survivor benefits if they can show they were in a committed relationship and would have married if possible, as well as those who were married for less than nine months before one spouse died.

“It’s truly impossible to overstate the significance of these recent developments that have unlocked the pathway to benefits, both in terms of the number of people affected, and how profoundly it impacts each person,” said Peter Renn, a lawyer with Lambda Legal.

More than 60 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, and just under 10 percent, or about 6 million, receive survivor benefits. Until this year, Renn said, LGBTQ people who contributed part of their paycheck to the pot weren’t getting anything back in terms of survivor benefits — simply because of their sexual identity.

There’s no record of the number of LGBTQ people now eligible for survivor benefits, though the SSA has identified and notified 700 potential recipients, it told the New York Times last month. Although the SSA was not able to offer an update on how many cases have been processed, the agency does plan to mail out a second round of notices soon, it said in an email statement.

The number of people who have been reached is probably an undercount, according to Renn, who added that Lambda Legal is attempting to get the word out about the changes. Any LGBTQ person can now apply for survivor benefits by showing a number of documents that demonstrate a shared life, including bank statements and mortgage receipts. He also said that LGBTQ survivors can visit the Lambda Legal website for further information about navigating this process.

Even with outreach, the work isn’t over. Older people are often harder to reach — computer fluency and how active one is will dictate whether LGBTQ people know there’s been a “game change,” Renn said. “We essentially have to shout it from the rooftops.”

When older people retire and begin to live on a fixed income, federal safety net programs like Social Security payments often become a critical means of financial support. Payments from Social Security are the main source of cash income for people 65 and older whose incomes are below the poverty line, and studies show that without SSA payments, the poverty rate among this older group would increase by 32 percentage points.

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Survivors who applied previously for benefits, as Martin did in 2014, are also eligible to receive back pay. In Martin’s case, he received $80,000 in back benefits and now receives an additional $1,000 per month, bringing his monthly income to $1,800, he said. (As the New York Times reports, the average survivor benefit payment is $1,467 a month.)

“An extra $1,000 a month is helping, because now I can afford to buy a new air conditioner that I need to have,” Martin said. The benefits will also help belay the price of insulin, which costs Martin $800 every three months to treat his diabetes, he said.

The now-active benefit payouts aren’t just a federal change that impacts LGBTQ people economically, Renn said, it’s a shift that recognizes the legitimacy and inherent value of LGBTQ love and partnership: “These benefits are legal recognition of the relationship that somebody had with their loved one.”

Helen Thornton, the plaintiff named in the class action on behalf of survivors who were never able to marry their partners, said that she and her partner, Margery Brown, had gotten used to living their lives outside of mainstream heterosexual society, where straight relationships are seen as the norm. “We certainly worked to make changes, but you had to sometimes lower your expectations because, you know, again, we were just considered second-class citizens,” Thornton said.

“The relationships were seen as different and not as significant and not as a real relationship,” Thornton added.

But for Thornton, her relationship with Brown was a defining part of their lives. “She sort of had a funny, kind of warm, sarcastic humor,” Thornton remembered. “She knew how to get people to laugh by making sort of familiar little jokes … and people were often very drawn to her.”

The two were together for 27 years; they purchased a house together and had a son together. When Brown was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003, it was Thornton who took care of her. And it was through these shared experiences that the two expressed their commitment to each other, Thornton said.

Brown passed away in 2006, a year before the state of Washington allowed for couples to register as domestic partners. Thornton has never stopped thinking about her, she said, especially when same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015. That made the country a different place for LGBTQ people, young people in particular, who wished to have their love recognized as legitimate in the eyes of the government, Thornton said.

It was a relief when the Supreme Court made that decision. “When things happen in your life, little things, big things … you think to that person, they’re still a part of you, even though they’re not physically there,” Thornton said. “So yeah, I definitely, I definitely thought about Marg that day.”

Martin and Gannoe were together for 37 years and tried multiple times to marry as a same-sex couple, traveling from Canada to Massachusetts to California to no avail due to various state and federal laws, Martin said. When the opportunity arose in Arizona in 2004 to declare their partnership in a commitment ceremony, the two jumped at the chance.

Finally, now, their relationship is getting a little recognition, he said: “I feel I was blessed, having him in my life. I miss him terribly.”

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