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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 24 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 43
Lesbian widows sue Social Security Administration
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Lesbian widows sue Social Security Administration

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Two Lesbian widows have filed separate suits against the Social Security Administration (SSA) hoping to obtain survivor benefits due them after the deaths of their spouses.

Unlike most federal agencies which recognize same-sex sex marriages if they are legal where they are performed, the SSA only recognizes marriages if they are legal where the couple resides. In the case of surviving spouses, they will only award survivor benefits if the marriage was recognized in the couple's state of residence at the time of the deceased spouse's death.

In a suit filed by GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) on October 20, Deborah Tevyaw is suing in a federal district court in Rhode Island to get spousal disability benefits and a lump sum death payment due her after the death of her wife.

Tevyaw married Patricia Baker in Massachusetts in 2005. In 2011 Baker died after a long battle with lung cancer. Tevyaw applied for Social Security benefits, but was denied because DOMA prevented federal agencies from recognizing her marriage.

After the Supreme Court ruling in Windsor, she applied again, but was denied because her state of residence, Rhode Island, did not recognize her Massachusetts marriage. Even after Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee issued an executive order recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages, the SSA continued to deny Tevyaw because her marriage was not recognized at the time of her wife's death.

Because SSA repeatedly denied her benefits she would have been entitled to if her spouse had been a man, Tevyaw has been living on a monthly income of $732 for more than three years. She was also forced to sell the home she owned for more than 38 years because she can't afford the mortgage, according to her lawsuit.

If SSA continues to deny Tevyaw benefits, the lawsuit says it would violate her right to equal protection and due process under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

'I've lost my wife and my best friend, and Social Security has made that so much worse by telling me that in their eyes, I was not Pat's wife,' Tevyaw said in a statement. 'Not only is that hurtful and insulting, it has meant that I am living in poverty. I am not looking for a handout; this is money that Pat earned through hard work.'

Janson Wu, GLAD's senior staff attorney, said the Social Security Administration has undertaken a 'misguided and mistaken application of the law' that has caused harm to same-sex couples.

'There is no doubt in our minds that Rhode Island would have recognized Pat and Deb as validly married at the time of Pat's death in 2011, and that Social Security's reading of the law is just plain wrong,' Wu said.

In the second lawsuit, filed on October 22, Lambda Legal is suing on behalf of Texas widow Kathy Murphy and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Murphy married Sara Barker in Massachusetts in 2010, after 30 years together in a committed relationship. Barker died of cancer in 2012. Because the couple lived in Texas, which refuses to recognize their marriage, SSA also refuses to recognize the marriage, denying Murphy spousal survivor benefits earned by Barker over a lifetime of work.

'Sara and I were blessed with nearly 32 years together, taking care of each other in all the ways any committed couple does - physically, emotionally and financially,' Murphy said.

'Sara wouldn't have wanted me to be in a position like this - we promised to support each other as a couple and if one of us should pass away. We worked hard to close all the gaps before she died and now the federal government won't do its part. That money will ensure that I can take care of the home that Sara and I shared together. We worked hard to support ourselves, and our dream was to grow old together, side-by-side. My hope now is that I will be treated no differently than any surviving spouse who has faced this same devastating loss.'

Lambda Legal said SSA's policy of depriving same-sex spouses of survivor benefits is unconstitutional.

'SSA should not be telling widowed lesbians and gay men already grieving the loss of a spouse - 'you live in the wrong state so you don't get Social Security spousal benefits,' said Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation at Lambda Legal.

'Thousands of same-sex spouses, like our client Kathy Murphy, have married, even though their home states refuse to recognize their relationships. Since Windsor, these aging lesbian and gay Americans believe that, at the very least, their marriages finally will be respected by the federal government. But, relying on discriminatory state marriage bans declared unconstitutional by an avalanche of courts around the country, SSA continues to deny same-sex spouses their benefits. Widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they live, need Social Security spousal benefits, earned through years of hard work, to support them as they age. They should not have to wait one more day to be treated with dignity by the federal government.'

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