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Same-sex partners now eligible for Social Security survivor benefits

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Michael Ely stands next to a photo of his spouse, James "Spider" Taylor — Photo courtesy of Michael Ely
Michael Ely stands next to a photo of his spouse, James "Spider" Taylor — Photo courtesy of Michael Ely

The US Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration announced on November 1 that Social Security survivor benefits will now be authorized for same-sex spouses and partners who previously were denied access because of bans on same-sex marriage.

According to the announcement, the two agencies decided to drop Trump-era appeals in two lawsuits claiming the benefits for surviving same-sex partners.

Helen Thornton, left, and Marge Brown — Photo courtesy of Helen Thornton  

Lambda Legal filed one of the suits on behalf of Helen Thornton, a Washington woman whose partner Marge Brown died of cancer in 2006. The two had been together for 27 years, but Washington did not recognize domestic partnerships until 2007 and same-sex marriages until 2012.

Thornton sued, saying she was unfairly denied Social Security benefits she would otherwise have been entitled to had she and her partner not been Lesbians.

In the second suit, Michael Ely could not marry his partner of 43 years, James "Spider" Taylor, because Arizona excluded same-sex couples from marriage until October 2014. Ely and Taylor married as quickly as they could, in November 2014, but Taylor died of cancer seven months later, short of the nine-month qualifying period for Social Security survivor benefits.

"We commend the Biden administration for respecting the constitutional rights of same-sex couples and choosing the right side of history. No one should continue to pay the price for past discrimination. Today's development ensures that the door stays open for seniors who were wrongly locked out from critical benefits because of discriminatory laws," said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn.

"This a historic development with immense implications: survivor's benefits are now equally available to everyone, including potentially thousands of same-sex partners who could not marry their loved ones and may have thought it was futile to apply."

"It's already made a huge difference in just being able to pay my bills and not have to worry so much about about money," Thornton told NBC News.

She added that she and Brown had a son together, and Thornton took time off from work as a result. Brown made more money than she did, and as a result was eligible for more in Social Security.

Marriage equality came "too late" for many same-sex couples, Thornton explained, making it crucial to fix the problem with survivor's benefits.

"I hope everyone who has been harmed by this problem, but never dared to apply for benefits, understands that this development is a game-changer," she said in a statement. "The pathway is now finally open to everyone."

Ely expressed similar thoughts.

"One of Spider's final hopes was that I would be able to access these benefits," he said. "I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that these benefits are now finally secure, not only for me but for everyone else who found themselves in the same boat."