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Despite a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that unlocked federal benefits for same-sex couples, there is still widespread uncertainty about how Social Security benefits will be rolled out to gay and lesbian spouses.

Experts are urging anyone who even suspects he or she might qualify for a spouse's Social Security benefits to file an application. They can't seem to say it enough.

"Eligibility date is triggered by the date of application, so we encourage people to apply if there's any possibility they're eligible at this point," said Catherine Sakimura, staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The Social Security Administration has been slow to reveal new eligibility policies in the wake of the high court's June 26 decision, which struck down a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited same-sex married couples from receiving federal spousal benefits.

Working in concert with the U.S. Department of Justice, the agency still has to determine how to deal with a patchwork of different state laws governing to what extent same-sex couples can form legal, formal relationships. Social Security rules adopted in the 1930s say eligibility for spousal benefits depends in part on how marriage is defined in the state in which an applicant resides, so the DOMA ruling isn't enough to resolve the matter.

Gay and lesbian marriages are legally recognized only in California and 13 other states, along with the District of Columbia.

On Aug. 9, the Social Security Administration began processing some spousal retirement benefit applications from same-sex couples.

The issue is especially critical for older gay and lesbian couples already receiving Social Security and who only recently were able to marry. One spouse may now qualify for a larger monthly check based on the work record of his or her spouse, said Webster Phillips, a 31-year veteran of the Social Security Administration who now serves as senior policy analyst for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare.

Those seeking survivors' or disability benefits for same-sex spouses or their children should also file applications, though those claims will not be processed right away, the agency says.

"We can't know what the policy is going to be because it hasn't been articulated yet," Phillips said. "But don't dally if you think you have a child who is eligible for benefits on your record or your wife's record. File a claim. You don't lose anything. And you'll get an authoritative decision at some point."

So far, however, only about 630 same-sex spousal claims have been filed nationally, representing a tiny fraction of those who stand to benefit financially from Social Security benefits, according to administration records.

That's one reason advocates are working on outreach to increase awareness and improve understanding of the issue among same-sex couples — precluded for decades from collecting on the federal benefits most heterosexual married couples took for granted.

They're hoping a free public forum scheduled on the topic Thursday morning in Santa Rosa is a start. The forum, organized by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare Foundation, is aimed at providing a model for educating the LGBT community nationally as the federal government clarifies its evolving policy on Social Security and Medicare.

"Now that the federal system is opening up, it's really imperative that we all start looking at this from a very educated point of view," said Paula Pilecki, executive director of Spectrum LGBT Center in San Rafael. "It's a wonderful opportunity for individuals who thought they weren't eligible for benefits to find out if they really are."

The forum, one of three in the Bay Area, is part of a pilot program developed with local partners to help potential recipients begin to understand the ins and outs of Social Security spousal benefits that provide a safety net for families and contribute millions of dollars in payouts that filter through the Sonoma County economy.

"Social Security is absolutely the bedrock for economic security of older couples," said Carroll Estes, chairwoman of the national committee and a Healdsburg resident. "And we know that LGBT individuals are economically disadvantaged in a number of ways as a general population and, particularly, lesbian couples."

Panelists at Santa Rosa Finley Center on Thursday morning include the assistant regional commissioner from the Social Security Administration's San Francisco office. Other scheduled speakers include Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and Healdsburg resident Carroll Estes, chairwoman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare Foundation, will be present.

Doors open at 7:45 a.m. and the panel discussion runs from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Registration is required by calling (415) 472-1945, ext. 209, or visiting www.spectrumLGBTcenter.org/SSFORUM.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.