While the Social Security Administration (SSA) has recently extended benefits to married same-sex couples in states where same-sex marriages are recognized, claims are currently on hold for same-sex couples who were legally married in states where same-sex marriage is recognized but now live in states that have not legalized same-sex marriage. To prevent unjust economic harm befalling legally married same-sex couples in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, the claims of these married couples should be approved.
Imagine the consequences if Social Security benefits are eventually denied for married same-sex couples living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. This means that if John and Ryan are legally married in their home state of Maryland but want to move to retire in Florida, they risk losing their Social Security surviving spouse benefits. John and Ryan must make the choice between dealing with the cold winters in Maryland or risking the chance that one of them may not be able to get by without the benefits their spouse worked for decades to earn.
Social Security holds numerous important financial benefits for married couples. For example, an individual may receive his or her deceased spouse's higher retirement payout instead of his or her own. When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse may also receive a one-time benefit payment of $255. Additionally, one-earner couples get a spousal benefit of an extra 50 percent of the worker's retirement benefits while both spouses are alive. For two-earner couples, the lower-earning spouse can receive his or her own benefit in addition to a spousal benefit to bring his or her total benefit up to 50 percent of the higher benefit.
Clearly, to deny married same-sex couples in certain states these substantial economic benefits is unfair. Married same-sex couples receive deductions in their paychecks that go to Social Security funds under the Federal Insurance Contribution Act, just as married heterosexual couples do. As such, they should have the same Social Security benefits that married heterosexual couples possess.
The SSA currently uses a "place of residence" standard when deciding spousal benefit claims, which prohibits married same-sex couples living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage from receiving these benefits. However, this policy could easily be changed. The Internal Revenue Service already recognizes married same-sex couples on federal income tax forms regardless of which state these couples live in, so a similar SSA policy when it comes to Social Security spousal benefits would provide consistency among federal departments.
The Department of Justice should recommend the approval of Social Security spousal benefits for married same-sex couples in every state to the Acting SSA Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin and work closely with the SSA in the formation of this new policy. Hopefully, the SSA will not put these claims on hold for much longer so that these married couples can get the benefits they deserve.