On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the Fifth Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional. While DOMA was in effect, the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages that were performed in states where they are legal, such as New York. This meant that the Social Security Administration was unable to pay certain benefits to individuals who would have otherwise been entitled to them if they were married to someone of the opposite sex. As this part of the law has been struck down, validly married same-sex couples should be treated identically to opposite-sex couples by the Social Security Administration.
There are several Social Security benefits that married individuals are entitled to that unmarried individuals are not. The two largest programs are survivor benefits and disabled widow(er)s benefits. A surviving spouse can now be entitled to benefits on a deceased spouse’s earnings record once they attain age 60 or are disabled and age 50. These benefits, once only available to opposite-sex couples, should now be extended to same-sex couples as well. Stepchildren may now also be entitled to benefits on a worker’s earnings record, if the worker is either deceased or receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
The Social Security Administration relies on state law to determine if a person was legally married. Social Security looks at the law of the state where a person was living at the time of their death to determine if their marriage was valid. It’s possible that a same-sex couple could be married in New York (or another state where same-sex marriage is legal) and then move to a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. According to Social Security’s current rules, the Administration would look to the rules of the state where the person lived at the time of their death to determine if the marriage was valid.
At first glance, this seems to mean that validly married same-sex couples could be denied benefits they would have been entitled to if they didn’t move. However, Social Security also recognizes a “deemed marriage” provision. In simple terms, if both partners believed themselves to be married, and acted like a married couple, and the only reason they are not validly married is “a legal impediment not known to the applicant” at the time of the marriage ceremony, Social Security will consider the marriage to be valid for benefit purposes.
We don’t know yet how Social Security will enact these provisions or what the end result will be. However, it appears clear to us that many people who were being denied benefits because of who they love will now be entitled to them.
Prior results do not guarantee outcomes.