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Letter to Carolyn Colvin, Commisioner of the Social Security Administration - Same Sex Couples and Social Security Benefits


Location: Washington, DC

September 30, 2014

The Honorable Carolyn W. Colvin
Acting Commissioner
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.


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