Same Sex Couples Get New Federal Benefits – By Quentin Fottrell

By Bill Ferguson June 23rd, 2014

Married same-sex couples will soon receive more federal benefits, including expanded access to Social Security and being allowed to take time off work to take care of ailing spouses without the risk of being fired, two government agencies announced Friday.

Although same-sex marriage is legally recognized in only 19 states and the District of Columbia, couples who get married in those states are still entitled to federal recognition of their marriage, due to a Supreme Court ruling last year that deemed much of the federal Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional.

Federal recognition includes the right to file joint federal tax returns (which can often lead to lower tax bills), and the right to seek residency for a spouse who isn’t a U.S. citizen. In other areas, however, there has been a legal gray area over whether the right to federal benefits trumps state law.

“Under the proposed revisions, the Family and Medical Leave Act will be applied to all families equally, enabling individuals in same-sex marriages to fully exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities to their families,” Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a statement Friday. The regulatory definition of “spouse” will be changed to include couples living in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, Perez said.

Also on Friday, the Social Security Administration said it would extend many Social Security benefits to same-sex couples in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage. “We worked closely with the Department of Justice,” Carolyn W. Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security said in a statement. “We remain committed to treating all Americans fairly, with dignity, and respect.”

These new Social Security instructions will allow the agency to process more claims in which entitlement or eligibility is affected by a same-sex relationship, the agency said. In some cases, the agency will begin recognizing eligibility and processing claims for couples in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages or non-marital legal relationships.

For example, a couple that married in a state that recognized such marriages and moved to a state that didn’t might still be able to collect benefits. (Expanding such rights to residents of all states would mostly likely require an act of Congress, according to legal commentators.)

Before DOMA was overturned in June 2013, a widow or widower in a same-sex couple couldn’t be eligible for the average $1,184 in monthly survivor benefits that survivors in opposite-sex couples currently receive, according to a 2013 report from Human Rights Campaign and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare Foundation. Nor would survivors of deceased same-sex spouses receive $255 to help with burial expenses.

“The exclusion of same-sex spouses and domestic partners from Social Security benefits has a long-term, life changing economic impact on couples and families across the country,” the report concluded.

The Social Security Administration encourages people who believe they may be entitled to benefits to apply here.