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Published: Nov 02, 2021 3 min read
A rainbow colored social security card in the spotlight.
Money; Getty Images

LGBTQ+ Americans notched a small but significant victory on Monday when the government dismissed two legal appeals in cases concerning Social Security. The dismissals formally — and finally — entitle people in certain same-sex relationships to payouts after the death of their loved ones.

The news impacts survivors benefits, which are typically paid to spouses and dependents after a person dies. The rules on who can claim survivors benefits and when are complicated, but generally a couple had to be married for at least nine months in order to qualify.

The policy has proven particularly limiting for same-sex couples, who spent years grappling with state laws until marriage equality was recognized at the federal level in 2015. For example, one of the dismissed appeals involved Helen Thornton, who was prevented from marrying her long-term partner because their home state of Washington didn't legalize it until six years after the latter died. The other centered around Michael Ely, who got married as soon as legally possible in Arizona in 2014 but whose spouse died before they hit the nine-month mark.

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With the help of civil rights nonprofit Lambda Legal, Thornton and Ely became the faces of class action lawsuits against Social Security administrators who rejected their applications for benefits. Judges ruled in 2020 that the situation was unconstitutional, but the Trump administration appealed. Lambda Legal announced the dismissals of those appeals on Monday.

"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," Lambda Legal's Peter Renn said in a news release.

About 5.8 million Americans are currently receiving survivors benefits. The average monthly payout is $1,250.

The Social Security Administration didn't return Money's request for comment on Monday's news, and its web pages on the Thornton and Ely lawsuits haven't been updated since last month. But it does have information online saying it recognizes same-sex marriages in all states as well as some non-marital legal relationships.

The agency encourages older LGTBQ+ adults to "apply right away for benefits, even if you are not sure you are eligible." Contact your local field office if you have specific questions about your situation.

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