Last year, Lambda Legal secured two court victories in a pair of class action lawsuits challenging the use of discriminatory state marriage laws to determine eligibility for Social Security survivors benefits for same-sex spouses and partners. The lawsuits had successfully challenged the continued denial of benefits to same-sex spouses and partners whose applications had been denied or who had never applied at all as a result of historically discriminatory marriage laws.  

While the Social Security Administration (SSA) originally appealed both decisions, last week the agency agreed to dismiss its appeals and expand the scope of relief for these individuals. 

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of individuals who were unable to meet the requirement for survivors benefits that they be married for a minimum of nine months because of discriminatory marriage laws, namely (1) surviving same-sex spouses who married their loved ones but were prevented from being married for nine months (Ely v. Saul), and (2) surviving same-sex partners who were prevented from marrying their loved ones at all (Thornton v. Saul). 

Previously, the protection afforded through the Thornton ruling had been limited to people who had applied for benefits before November 25, 2020. This new development gives all surviving same-sex partners who were barred from marrying when their partners were alive the same pathway to benefits as those protected by last year’s ruling in Thornton, regardless of whether they had applied for those benefits at any point in the past. This change can particularly help same-sex partners who could not marry their loved ones due to state law prohibition and who may have thought it was futile to even apply for survivor’s benefits. Lambda Legal, which fought and won the cases at the trial court level, has FAQs that advocates can check to see if clients may be a member of the Thornton or the Ely case. Advocates can also contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk

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