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What the Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Means for Social Security

The Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is a nationwide right means that all married couples may receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits — no matter where they live.

In 2013, the Court’s landmark Windsor decision required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages and, as a result, most federal benefits became available to all couples as long as their marriages were legal where they were celebrated.  Thus, the federal government recognized same-sex families when it came to paying taxes, receiving Medicare benefits, taking family and medical leave, getting immigration visas, and obtaining military and civilian employee benefits, among other changes.

Social Security spousal and survivor benefits, however, were only available to people who lived in states that recognized same-sex marriage because the Social Security Act defines marriage based on where you live, not where you were married.  So, for instance, if a same-sex couple married in New York (which recognized same-sex marriage) and retired to Texas (which didn’t), they wouldn’t qualify for Social Security spousal or survivor benefits, and their children might not qualify for child benefits.  One in six same-sex married couples live in states that didn’t recognize their marriages until today.  (As it awaited the Court’s ruling, the Social Security Administration encouraged couples whose marriages weren’t recognized to apply for benefits.  Beneficiaries who qualify can receive retroactive benefits back to the date they applied.)

With today’s ruling, same-sex married couples in every state may receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits, as well as benefits for their children.  These benefits provide valuable social insurance protection to families when a breadwinner dies, retires, or becomes disabled.  A recent study estimated that same-sex couples stand to gain an additional $20,000 to $250,000 in lifetime benefits.