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Same-sex partners win survivors benefits after Justice Dept. dismisses lawsuits

Some same-sex spouses and partners have been barred from Social Security survivors benefits due to now-defunct bans on gay marriage.
Michael Ely standing next to a photo of his spouse, James “Spider” Taylor.
Michael Ely stands next to a photo of his spouse, James “Spider” Taylor. Courtesy Michael Ely

Social Security survivors benefits will now be available to same-sex spouses and partners who had been denied access due to previous bans on gay marriage.

The Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration on Monday announced that they dismissed appeals filed by the then-Trump administration in two class-action lawsuits related to Social Security survivors benefits for same-sex partners and spouses.

In 2018, Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights nonprofit group, filed two class-action lawsuits against the Social Security Administration: one on behalf of surviving same-sex partners who had been prevented from legally marrying their loved ones by bans on same-sex marriage, and another on behalf of those who were able to marry, but were prevented from being married for at least nine months — the minimum set by the Social Security Administration — due to bans on same-sex marriage.

Helen Thornton, left, and Marge Brown.
Helen Thornton, left, and Marge Brown.Courtesy Helen Thornton

Lambda Legal filed one of the suits on behalf of Helen Thornton, 66, whose partner of 27 years, Marge Brown, died of cancer in 2006. The two were unable to get married before Brown died because Washington didn't allow gay and lesbian couples to marry until December 2012. (It also didn't recognize domestic partnerships until 2007.)

As a result, the Social Security Administration denied Thornton's application for survivors benefits when she initially applied in 2015, shortly before her 60th birthday, according to court documents. After three years of appeals, Lambda Legal filed the suit on her behalf.

In the second suit, Michael Ely, 68, could not marry his partner, James "Spider" Taylor, for most of their 43-year relationship because Arizona excluded same-sex couples from marriage until October 2014. Ely and Taylor married as quickly as they could — in November 2014 — but Taylor died of cancer seven months later.

When Ely applied for survivors benefits in 2015, shortly after his 62nd birthday, the Social Security Administration denied his application on the grounds that he was not married to Taylor for at least nine months, even though that wasn't possible due to Arizona's law preventing same-sex marriage, according to court documents.

Last year, federal district courts in Arizona and Washington ruled that excluding Thornton, Taylor and other members of their suits from benefits is unconstitutional.

The then-Trump administration appealed in both decisions, and when President Joe Biden took office, his administration didn't immediately drop the lawsuits. As of Monday though, the Justice Department has dropped them both.

“We commend the Biden administration for respecting the constitutional rights of same-sex couples and choosing the right side of history," Lambda Legal counsel Peter Renn said." No one should continue to pay the price for past discrimination. Today’s development ensures that the door stays open for seniors who were wrongly locked out from critical benefits because of discriminatory laws."

He added that survivors benefits are now equally available to everyone, “including potentially thousands of same-sex partners who could not marry their loved ones and may have thought it was futile to apply.” 

Ely said in a statement that he feels “like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest.”

“One of Spider’s final hopes was that I would be able to access these benefits," he said. "I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that these benefits are now finally secure, not only for me but for everyone else who found themselves in the same boat.”

Until Lambda Legal’s lawsuits, even James Obergefell — the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide — was unable to receive survivors benefits because he and his spouse, John Arthur, were only legally married for three months before Arthur died.

Thornton said it feels great to know that the battle is officially over. She said she began receiving Social Security survivors benefits in January, as a result of last year's ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and that they've already made a big difference in her life.

Helen Thornton
Helen Thornton.Courtesy Helen Thornton

"It’s already made a huge difference in just being able to pay my bills and not have to worry so much about about money," she told NBC News. She added that she and Brown had a son together, and Thornton took time off from work as a result. Brown made more money than she did, and as a result was eligible for more in Social Security, she said.

The two met through friends in 1977, began dating in 1979 and then had a son in 1984.

"She had a very funny sense of humor, and had this very sort of calm demeanor that really drew me to her," Thornton said. "I was very much the exact opposite of her. I'm sort of not a calm personality, more sarcastic. So I think it was definitely the case of opposites."

In a statement to Lambda Legal, she said she's relieved that she and "Margie" will not be "treated as legal strangers even in death."

She said she hopes more surviving spouses will hear about the decision and will apply for benefits now.

"I was really glad that we made it a class-action case because obviously I didn't want it to benefit just me," she said by phone. "That really didn't make sense."

She said that same-sex marriage came "too late" for many gay couples, but that it wasn't too late to fix the problem with survivors benefits.

"I hope everyone who has been harmed by this problem, but never dared to apply for benefits, understands that this development is a game-changer," she said in a statement. "The pathway is now finally open to everyone.”

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