In a landmark ruling on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 decision) that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. As such, the Supreme Court ruling makes same-sex marriage a legal right nationwide.
This ruling by the Supreme Court clearly has wide reaching implications. With respect to Social Security benefits specifically, this ruling has significant implications for same-sex couples. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is no longer prevented from recognizing same-sex marriages in determining entitlement to Social Security benefits or eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. As we speak, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is working closely with the Department of Justice to develop and implement additional policy and processing instructions to provide same-sex couples access to all the same benefits as heterosexual couples.
If you are a same-sex couple and believe you may be eligible for retirement, spousal or survivors benefits, the SSA encourages you to apply now to protect you against the loss of any potential benefits. By applying for eligible benefits now you can secure your filing date and, as such, settlement of any claims will go back to that filing date.
The decision on same-sex marriage that was just handed down by the Supreme Court has seismic implications for what's right and fair and good for married couples who love each other, are committed to each other and who also happen to be gay. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in this historic decision. Marriage is a "keystone of our social order", Justice Kennedy said, adding that the plaintiffs in this case were seeking "equal dignity in the eyes of the law". With that, same-same couples will now be eligible for all benefits available to any married couple.
As I wrote in my blog just two short weeks ago, it was time for all 50 states to recognize the rights and privileges of same sex couples and to provide them with all the social security benefits afforded heterosexual couples. Well, that day has arrived! It's more than just a civil rights victory for same-sex couples across the country, it's also an important financial win. In some cases, as with heterosexual couples, social security spousal and survivor benefits may be a lifeline keeping couples and surviving spouses from a life of poverty.
The Supreme Court on this same day in 2013 struck down a law that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. But same-sex marriage was still banned in 13 states: Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas and Tennessee. However, once this latest Supreme Court's ruling takes effect in two weeks, those states must also recognize same-sex couples who were married in a state where it was already legal. Those states must also issue marriage licenses to couples who want to get married now.
With the Supreme Court's decision recognizing same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, those couples will be able to use the same Social Security income maximization strategies available to heterosexual couples. These strategies include spousal, ex-spousal, disability and survivor benefits which can result in significant increases in lifetime social security benefits. The New York Times estimated that, before this Supreme Court ruling, a same-sex couple would receive anywhere from $41,000 - $468,000 in reduced benefits when compared to a heterosexual couple! Clearly, this is an enormous win, financially and otherwise, for same-sex couples.
This is not just a great day for same-sex couples in America. The Supreme Court ruling sends a signal to the world that America is a country where the goals of equality, dignity, fairness and justice apply to all Americans. Confirming the legal right to marry under the law also affords same-sex couples with the financial rights and benefits within the social security system that they paid into and will likely need in navigating the economic challenges of retirement; the same challenges faced by all Americans who are approaching or are in retirement today.
Ash Ahluwalia, NSSA, CCSCA, MBA