Since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a sweeping ruling last June striking down the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, the Obama administration has moved with haste to implement the decision. The Pentagon has extended benefits to same-sex military families and the Treasury Department has granted married same-sex couples equal federal tax recognition.
But while numerous agencies and departments across the federal government have moved to broadly implement the decision in U.S. v. Windsor, the Social Security Administration has been limited in its implementation. As Carolyn W. Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security, announced last August, the Social Security Administration has only processed benefits for those married same-sex couples who reside in marriage-equality states.
With legislation introduced Thursday, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) hope to change that. The Social Security and Marriage Equality (SAME) Act would amend federal code so as to ensure recognition of all lawfully married same-sex couples, even if they live in one of the 33 states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.
“Your zip code should not determine whether or not your family will have the means to survive after the death of a spouse,” Murray said in a statement. “While I believe the Social Security Administration can, and should, resolve this inconsistency through administrative action, the SAME Act would provide a roadmap to ensure equality under our federal laws do not end at state lines.”
Although the Social Security Administration has moved to extend spousal benefits for those living in marriage-equality states, as well as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicare, delays remain for spousal retirement, spousal survivor and lump sum death benefits for those married same-sex couples living in states that do not permit same-sex marriage, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“The current delay of survivor benefits claims by the Social Security Administration not only places an unfair economic burden on legally married same-sex couples, but an extremely emotional one as well,” Murray added.
The bill also applies to those same-sex couples legally married in other countries, according to Murray’s office.
Some have argued that the Social Security Administration could take action on its own to fix such inconsistencies. “This is an issue a number of us believe could be resolved without legislation,” said Mary Bonauto, Civil Rights Project director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, during a conference call with reporters. But with the Windsor decision approaching its one year anniversary on June 26, advocates hope the introduction of federal legislation will draw attention to the issue while providing the Social Security Administration a roadmap for implementation, even if it may not come up for a vote in the legislative days that remain.
“Nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, there’s no excuse for the federal government to continue withholding certain federal benefits from legally married same-sex couples,” Udal said in a statement. “Marriages don’t end when couples cross state lines, and neither should the federal benefits they have earned.”
Last December, Colvin announced Social Security had begun processing claims and awarding payments to the surviving spouses of some same-sex marriages, while placing on hold claims filed by a person whose same-sex spouse died in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. In her statement, Colvin asked for continued patience as Social Security continues to work with the Justice Department to develop legally sound policies for processing claims.
“As I stated shortly after the Supreme Court decision on Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, our goal is to treat all Americans with dignity and respect,” Colvin said.
Murray and Udall are also co-sponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last June, which would repeal the remaining sections of DOMA and apply to every federal program, including Social Security. That bill currently has 45 sponsors in the Senate and its companion bill has 175 sponsors in the House of Representatives.