Metro Weekly

Advocates ask federal court to force Social Security to grant same-sex survivor’s benefits

Lawyers for lesbian widow argue denial of spousal benefits is continuation of harm caused by bans on same-sex marriage

Widow Helen Thornton (second from left) with her brother and attorneys Karen Loewy and Peter Renn – Photo: Lambda Legal.

Lawyers for a lesbian widow appeared in court on Thursday to ask a federal judge to end the Social Security Administration’s refusal to provide spousal survivor’s benefits to partners who were prevented from marrying their now-deceased loved ones due to state bans on same-sex marriage.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Helen Thornton, a 64-year-old lesbian from Washington State who was in a 27-year committed relationship with her partner Marge Brown from 1979 to 2006, when Brown died of cancer. 

In 2015, shortly before her 60th birthday — the age at which she would have been eligible to begin receiving survivor’s benefits, given Brown’s word record — Thornton applied for those benefits, but was denied based on the fact that she and Brown weren’t married at the time of Brown’s death.

Social Security requires that a couple be married nine months before a surviving spouse can qualify for survivor’s benefits.

Same-sex couples were barred from marrying in Washington State until 2012, so Thornton and Brown were never able to legally marry.

In their arguments before U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, lawyers for Lambda Legal, representing Thornton, argued that denying survivor’s benefits — not just to her but to similarly situated same-sex partners who were restricted by state laws from marrying — is unconstitutional.

“By requiring same-sex couples to have been married at a time when that was impossible for them under state law in order to access survivor’s benefits, the Social Security Administration is now doubling down on unlawful discrimination that continues to harm surviving same-sex seniors every single month they are deprived of the benefits for which they paid,” Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn said in a statement. 

“Helen and Marge were together for 27 years. They built a home, raised a child, and paid into Social Security like any committed couple. But because they couldn’t marry, Social Security is denying Helen the essential survivor’s benefits that she and Marge paid for,” Renn added. “Heterosexual surviving spouses are able to count on the critical financial protection of survivor’s benefits after the death of their loved ones, but SSA casts surviving same-sex partners like Helen aside, even though they paid the same lifetime of contributions from their paychecks.”

Lambda Legal is also representing the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which advocates for the financial security of American seniors who benefit from government programs, and is supporting Thornton’s application for benefits.

“If you contribute to Social Security throughout your working life, you and your family will receive your earned benefits upon retirement, death, or disability,” Max Richtman, the president and CEO of the Committee, said in a statement. “Same-sex parters should not be denied Social Security survivor’s benefits when discriminatory laws prevented them from getting married in the first place. Basic fairness demands that they receive the same benefits as married couples. It’s long past time to right this wrong.”

Thornton, who is semi-retired and takes care of animals to supplement her monthly income, argues that she’s just fighting for what’s legally hers.

“Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth,” she said in a statement. “Like other committed couples, we built a life together, formed a family, and cared for each other in sickness and in health.

“Although we wanted to express our love for each other through marriage, discriminatory laws barred us from doing so before Margie’s death,” Thornton added. “Now, in my retirement years, I’m barred from receiving the same benefits — essential to my financial security — as other widows, even though Margie and I both worked hard and paid into the social security system with every paycheck.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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