Denial of Survivor Benefits
Helen Thorton, who reportedly filed an application for survivor benefits back in 2015 after the death of her partner of 27 years, has brought an action against the Social Security Administration. Lambda Legal sent the complaint on her behalf to a District Court in the US.
Social Security Administration argued that Helen Thornton was not eligible to receive the benefits of her late partner, Margery Brown. According to the SSA, her ineligibility stemmed from the fact that there was no legal marriage between her and her late partner. They claimed that same-sex marriage only became legally binding in their jurisdiction 6 years after the death of Thorton’s partner.
The SSA explicitly noted that it wouldn’t reconsider Thorton’s benefits applications and added that she remain unmarried by her own choice. It further explained that she did not satisfy the requirements she ought to have satisfied to be regarded as a widow because when her partner died in 2006, gay marriage had not been recognized in Washington.
The complaint referred to the position of the Supreme Court in the case or Obergefell v. Hodges, where the court pronounced as unconstitutional the bans imposed by the state on marriage between spouses of the same gender. They also relied on the authority in the case of United States v. Windsor, where the court also declared that federal parastatals had no power to deprive gay couples of their spousal benefits.
Violation of Constitutional Provisions
In addition, the complaint alleges that the action of the SSA amounted to a violation of the equal protection as well as due process as provided under the US Constitution, Fifth Amendment. The complaint also sought a permanent injunction prohibiting the SSA from further withholding benefits from surviving partners of gay marriages who would have otherwise gotten married if not for the state law.
Lambda Legal wrote that the action on the part of SSA was telling partners like Thorton that they were considered unworthy of recognition by Federal government and couldn’t get equal treatment. They also argued that it amounted to demeaning their dignity.
The counsel of the rights groups, Peter Renn, stated that this position amounted to the federal government requiring surviving partners of gay marriages to pass a test which was impossible before they could gain access to the benefits of their marriage to those they love.
Peter Renn noted that the stage had been passed when government could deny gay couples of equal treatment. He added that denying them of these benefits amounted to the federal government backing the discriminatory laws on marriage even though the Supreme Court already pronounced otherwise on these laws.
Thornton was Brown’s primary caregiver after her ovarian cancer diagnosis for three years before she died in 2006. 63-year-old Thornton is semi-retired. She gives care to animals as a way of supplementing her monthly income from Social Security.
Survivors benefits are also very important to spouses of gay marriage just as they are to spouses of different gay marriages. The financial implication of the denial of such benefits does not only affect Thornton survivor benefits but also affects her own personal benefits.
Implication of Denial
In explaining the implication, the complaint noted that because Thornton was considered ineligible to receive survivor benefits, she started collecting the benefits of social security when she was sixty-two years and that was due to her personal work record. If Thorton had been eligible for the benefits, it would have been possible for her to delay receiving benefits until she reached 66 years or later than that.
The collection of the benefits calculated based on her personal record at 62 years came quite early and that would reduce the benefits she can receive all through the rest of her life. Thus, the denial has an obvious adverse effect on the quality of her life and also stretched her finances.
The complaint asks the court to grant Thorton the survivors benefits and also include a recalculation of all benefits to an extent sufficient to offer total relief.