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Gay spouses entitled to Social Security survivors benefits, court rules

Same-sex couples who were not legally married for the requisite nine months due to same-sex marriage bans are still entitled to survivors benefits.
Michael Ely and James Taylor.
Michael Ely and his husband, James "Spider" Taylor, who died in 2015.via Lambda Legal

Michael Ely met his husband, James Taylor, at a Sunset Beach bar in 1971. Taylor, known as “Spider” to his friends, played guitar in a band, and Ely got involved as a singer. The couple lived in California until the emotional toll of the AIDS epidemic became too great. In the early ‘90s, they relocated to Tucson, Arizona, where Taylor worked as a jet mechanic for Bombardier and Ely took care of their home.

In 2007, Ely and Taylor had a commitment ceremony but could not be legally married in Arizona. Then in November of 2014, shortly after the state legalized same-sex marriage — and 43 years after they first met — the two men tied the knot. Six months later, Taylor succumbed to cancer.

"Being able to access survivors benefits can make the difference for whether someone can afford the basic necessities of life, like housing, food and health care."

Peter Renn, Lambda Legal

Despite their decadeslong relationship and eventual marriage, the Social Security Administration denied Ely spousal benefits, because the couple had not been married for the requisite nine months.

This week, however, a federal court ruling changed that. The LGBTQ advocacy group Lambda Legal won a class-action lawsuit, Ely v. Saul, on behalf of same-sex couples denied Social Security Administration benefits because of gay marriage bans.

“Because same-sex marriage is a fundamental right, and the underpinnings of the duration-of-marriage requirement has relied on the unconstitutional ban of that right, it cannot be said to be rationally related to a legitimate interest to a surviving spouse such as Mr. Ely,” the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona’s Wednesday ruling states.

Ely described the decision as a “huge victory” that’s “going to help a lot of people.” One of the Lambda Legal attorneys on the case, Peter Renn, agreed.

“It is impossible to overstate the significance of this victory, not just for the number of people it affects, but for vindication of their constitutional rights,” he said.

The other named plaintiffs in the case include Anthony Gonzalez, whose husband, Mark Johnson, died in 2014, and James Obergefell, whose husband, John Arthur, died in 2013. Obergefell was also the plaintiff in the 2015 landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage legal across the United States.

Renn said that despite the Obergefell decision five years ago, the widowers involved in Ely v. Saul “have been deprived the protections of marriage, and without the victory would have been deprived the protections” for the rest of their lives.

“This type of government denial is flatly unconstitutional, and the ruling provides this relief on a nationwide basis to everyone who was affected by this,” he said.

Following a request for comment, the Social Security Administration referred NBC News to the Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond.

Ruling's impact

Because Ely v. Saul is a class-action suit, all couples in a similar position to Ely will be able to access survivors benefits.

In 2020, over 65 million Americans will receive over $1 trillion in benefits from the Social Security Administration, according to the agency. While there are no estimates available for the number of gay surviving spouses who will benefit from this week's ruling, survivors benefits account for over 12 percent of SSA benefits paid. In a single month in 2019, 6 million survivors received $7 billion in benefits.

“Being able to access survivors benefits can make the difference for whether someone can afford the basic necessities of life, like housing, food and health care,” Renn said.

At 67 years old, Ely currently relies on his husband’s pension from Bombardier, but that will run out in a couple of years.

“I think I’m going to be around another 20 years, and this gives me that security that I won’t end up on the streets,” he said of the Social Security benefits he’s now entitled to.

Renn emphasized that Social Security benefits are “benefits we all pay for.”

“This is tethered to your earning history,” he said. “Michael’s husband paid in like everybody else.”

Ely said his husband was a “hard worker” who spent “over 40 years putting into Social Security.”

“To think that I, his partner, his husband, would be denied that money and the government would just keep it didn’t seem fair,” Ely said.

Ely said he expects the government to appeal the decision, but he isn’t allowing that to take the shine out of his victory.

“I am happy, and I know Spider would be happy,” Ely said. “I think he would be doing cartwheels, and I hope he is, somewhere.”

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