The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) has a policy that says a spouse must be married to their partner for at least nine months before they’re eligible to receive a deceased partner’s survivor benefits.
That’s not a problem for most couples, but it is for Michael Ely, a 65-year-old gay Arizona resident. He was denied SSA survivor benefits when his husband of six months died of cancer in 2015.
Ely and his partner Jim Taylor met in 1971 and they stayed together for the next 43 years. But because marriage wasn’t legal in Arizona until October 2014, they couldn’t marry until just before Taylor died.
“We got married as soon as we could, quickly gathering our loved ones together in less than three weeks,” Ely said. “But we were only able to be married for six months before I lost him to cancer.”
Now, Ely isn’t asking for special treatment, just for justice.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all same-sex marriage bans, finding that such bans furthered no compelling government interest and treated American citizens differently, something forbidden by the 14th Amendment.
As such, the Arizona state ban that kept Ely from marrying Taylor was unconstitutional to begin with. Ely and other bereaved same-sex partners should be eligible to collect.
The LGBTQ advocacy group Lambda Legal has since filed a lawsuit against the SSA on Ely’s behalf.
Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn said, “Same-sex couples who weren’t able to marry for most of their relationship faced discrimination throughout their lives, and now surviving spouses like Michael face it all over again, after their loved one has died. It’s like pouring salt in a wound.”
Renn added that these benefits are “as essential to the financial security of surviving same-sex spouses in their retirement years as they are to heterosexual surviving spouses.”
In short, if the SSA doesn’t pay up, Ely’s life could tragically be cut short too, adding one injustice on top of another.