U.S. Reps. Susan Davis (CA-53), Allyson Y. Schwartz (PA-13), and Mark Takano (CA-41) led 127 U.S. Representatives today in urging the Social Security Administration to improve outreach to same-sex couples.
State and federal laws determining Social Security benefits for same-sex couples have changed significantly in recent years. Prior to 2013, same-sex couples were unable to obtain Social Security benefits, even if they were legally married and lived in a state that recognized marriage equality. Following a 2013 Supreme Court decision benefits have been made available, but only to couples living in states that recognize marriage equality. In this confusing landscape, and with marriage equality being recognized in an increasing number of states, many same-sex couple may not be aware that they are now eligible for Social Security benefits.
“The SSA should be proactive on this issue,” said Rep. Davis. “Same-sex couples, many of whom are struggling to get by, may have benefits owed to them and not even be aware of it. A simple letter of notification would not just be of financial benefit but would show that the federal government is truly committed to fairness and equality.”
“For many years, legalized discrimination prevented same-sex couples from receiving spousal and survivor benefits,” said Schwartz. “Considering this history and the complexity of current law, it’s clear that a defined outreach effort is necessary to ensure that all eligible same-sex couples receive the Social Security benefits they have earned.”
In their letter, Schwartz, Takano, Davis and more than 120 fellow House members urged the Social Security Administration to identify individuals in same-sex relationships who have applied for spousal and survivor benefits but were previously denied, in order to educate them regarding changes in state and federal law and to inform them that they may reapply for benefits.
“The move toward marriage equality is happening at breakneck speed and it is important for same-sex couples to be aware of the benefits that they are now eligible for,” said Rep. Mark Takano. “Federal agencies must be prepared for the changes and be able to respond in an efficient manner that leaves no one behind. The Social Security Administration can do just that by improving outreach to same-sex couples who may be missing out on spousal and survivor benefits. As our nation continues its path toward full marriage equality, it is my hope that Acting Commissioner Colvin and the Social Security Administration will move quickly and inform these Americans of their newly available benefits so that those who are eligible can reapply as soon as possible.”
SUPPORTING ORGANIZATIONS: B’nai B’rith, Center for Community Change Action, Human Rights Campaign, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, National Organization for Women, National Senior Citizens Law Center, OWL-The Voice of Women 40+, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), Social Security Works
The full text of the letter follows:
September 30, 2014
The Honorable Carolyn W. Colvin
Social Security Administration
6401 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21235
Dear Commissioner Colvin:
We write to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to take steps to ensure that same-sex couples receive the Social Security spousal and survivor benefits that they have earned.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, restricting federal recognition to only heterosexual unions, was unconstitutional. By striking down this discriminatory law, the Supreme Court enabled federal agencies to begin extending federal benefits to many same-sex couples.
We appreciate the significant steps that SSA has taken to ensure that same-sex couples receive their earned benefits. Social Security benefits are especially important for same-sex couples. Elderly gay couples have higher poverty rates than their heterosexual counterparts, and elderly lesbians are twice as likely to be poor as heterosexual married couples.
Social Security benefits are currently determined based on a “place of domicile” standard, meaning that same-sex couples are generally only eligible to receive benefits if they live in a state that recognizes the validity of their union. With marriage equality being recognized in a growing number of states, we are concerned that same-sex couple may not be aware that they are now eligible for Social Security benefits and we believe that additional efforts are needed.
Following the Windsor decision, it is our understanding that SSA began to specifically track applications from individuals who applied for same-sex spousal and survivor benefits. This means that Social Security has the ability to identify individuals who previously applied for and were denied benefits, but who are eligible because their state now recognizes marriage equality. It is also our understanding that SSA has not reached out to these individuals and has no plans to do so.
We strongly urge you to identify all individuals in same-sex relationships who have applied for spousal benefits and been denied, including individuals who applied for benefits prior to the
Windsor decision, in order to educate them regarding changes in state and federal law and inform them that they may reapply for benefits. Additionally, we ask that you provide us with statistics detailing the number of individuals in same-sex relationships that have applied for spousal benefits and the status of these applications.
We appreciate the extensive and ongoing efforts that you and your agency have undertaken to reduce discrimination against same-sex couples, and we thank you for your consideration and your attention to this important issue.