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."