Senate Bill Would Allow Unmarried to Collect SS Spousal Survivor Benefits

By Lauretta Brown | May 16, 2014 | 11:22am EDT

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (AP File Photo)

( – Two Senate Democrats want to change the way a valid marriage is determined under the Social Security Act so that same-sex couples living in states that do not recognize their unions can still collect spousal survivor benefits.

Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced the Social Security and Marriage Equality (SAME) Act on May 8th.

The bill aims to “ensure all same-sex spouses receive equal treatment under the Social Security Act when applying for Social Security benefits, regardless of where they live,” according to Senator Murray’s website.

The Social Security Act currently defines a valid recipient of spousal survivor benefits as a “wife, husband, widow, or widower of a fully or currently insured individual if the courts of the State in which the insured individual lives in or was domiciled at time of death would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly married at the time such applicant files such application or, if such insured individual is dead, at the time he died.”

The SAME Act amends this section of the law so that an individual who does not qualify for survivor benefits because they are not legally married in their state could collect them if their marriage was recognized as valid in another state or even in another country.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act by ruling that its definition of marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” deprived homosexual couples who were legally married under the laws of their states equal protection of the law.

Sen. Udall referenced the court’s decision in a statement saying, "Nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, there's no excuse for the federal government to continue withholding federal benefits from legally married same-sex couples."

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) (AP photo)

"Your zip code should not determine whether or not your family will have the means to survive after the death of a spouse,” agreed Sen. Murray in a statement,

“While I believe the Social Security Administration can, and should, resolve this inconsistency through administrative action, the SAME Act would provide a roadmap to ensure equality under our federal laws do not end at state lines," she said.

But Leanna Baumer, a senior legislative assistant at the Family Research Council (FRC), told that the Supreme Court ruling also reaffirmed states’ “longstanding authority to define and regulate domestic relations.”

"So in terms of, you know, what the import of this bill would be, FRC is opposed to measures like this that would further undermine state authority on marriage, and we think last summer's Supreme Court ruling in United States vs. Windsor doesn't require these types of actions because the Court was pretty clear that states have had a longstanding authority to define and regulate domestic relations, and that the Court was clear that that needed to be respected. That authority needed to be respected.

“And so, we would see the current posture of the Social Security Administration as comporting with the federalism themes of Windsor and in fact being deferential to state authority on marriage. So we would be opposed to this type of legislation."

However, several prominent LGBT advocacy groups praised the bill.

David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said in a statement: “Every legally married, same-sex couple deserves to have their marriage fully recognized by the federal government regardless of where they live or what federal benefits they have earned. We are grateful to Senators Patty Murray and Mark Udall for bringing attention to the essential protections provided by Social Security.”

The SAME Act has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.

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