10/29/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Do You Know Your Rights? Same-Sex Couples and Social Security

It's been months since the Supreme Court's Windsor decision on the Defense of Marriage Act but most of the nation's 650,000 same-sex couples are still wondering "now what?" The DOMA ruling impacts literally a thousand pieces of federal law. In Social Security, the decision will impact large numbers of elder lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, spouses, widows and their children.

There is a lot at stake for thousands of California's same-sex couples who are no longer considered legal strangers by the federal government. Before the DOMA ruling, a child whose same-sex parent died forfeited as much as $15,000 each year in survivor income, totaling $256,000 before he/she reached age 18. There are an estimated quarter million children being raised by same-sex couples who can now qualify for Social Security survivors benefits. When it comes to retirement, same-sex spouses lost, on average, more than $8,000 each year in earned spousal retirement benefits because their marriage was not recognized by the federal government. While all of that has changed with the Supreme Court ruling, it's now up to LGBT families to take the next steps: educate themselves about Social Security and apply when eligible. But we know that may be easier said than done. Which is why we're proud Northern California, an area well-known for its proactive response to human rights and social justice issues, is taking the lead to inform and educate the LGBT community about their new right to Social Security benefits.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation received a lead sponsorship grant from the Marin Community Foundation to support a Northern California educational program designed to provide vital outreach to the LGBT communities impacted by the Windsor decision. The program "Know Your Rights" is the first of its kind in the nation and a model for a national education campaign reaching millions of LGBT Americans coast to coast. With additional support from the Adult and Aging Services division of the Sonoma County Human Services Department, these outreach programs will include panel discussions with representatives from the Social Security Administration, alongside experts from the legal, seniors' and LGBT advocacy networks. The events will be held October 29-31 in Novato, San Francisco, and Santa Rosa, California in partnership with Spectrum LGBT Center and Openhouse in San Francisco.

As the state with the largest LGBT population in the country and the largest number of Social Security beneficiaries, California is the natural starting point for this nationwide education campaign ensuring America's same-sex couples understand their rights and claim their benefits. In San Francisco alone, 12 percent of seniors (almost 20,000) identify as LGBT. The Social Security Administration is now processing retirement spouse claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits to those who are eligible. Anyone who believes they might be eligible for Social Security benefits is urged to apply now to avoid the loss of potential benefits you've earned.

Too many of those benefits have already been lost in a system that, until now, treated same-sex couples as second-class citizens. That's all about to change and we're proud to help northern California lead the way.

Max Richtman, NCPSSM and NCPSSM Foundation President/CEO and Carroll L. Estes, Ph.D., University of California San Francisco Institute for Health & Aging Co-Founder and NCPSSM Foundation Board Chair

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