Aging gays and lesbians of a generation whose social survival, at least, depended largely on "staying hidden" may need coaxing to openly claim federal spousal benefits for which they are now eligible, a North Bay LGBT advocate said Thursday.

But advocates and experts appearing at a forum on Social Security benefits for same-sex spouses urged anyone who may have a valid claim to remember that Social Security benefits are earned through a lifetime of work, even if it's your husband's or your wife's.

"Be ambassadors," Assistant Social Security Regional Manager Hyacinth Hinojosa told about 100 people, encouraging them to spread the word about evolving eligibility standards, especially if they know someone who might qualify.

"Do not dally. ... By applying today you protect your benefits," Hinojosa said.

The event was one of three held in the greater Bay Area this week to launch a nationwide campaign by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare Foundation to expand awareness of shifting benefit regulations in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for gays and lesbians to claim spousal benefits in states that recognize same-sex marriage.

The "big winners," said Web Phillips, who retired after 31 years with the Social Security Administration and now serves on the national advocacy committee, are mostly retirees whose own work record entitles them to a lower Social Security benefit than they would be able to claim using their spouse's record.

But there are also children — about a quarter-million nationally — who are newly eligible for Social Security benefits as the children of parents whose marriage is now legally valid, he said.

"There's a possibility there are many people out there who would get more if they apply," Phillips said.

One of Thursday's panelists, Sebastopol estate planning attorney Tate Birnie, said many legal advocates believe Californians who are not married but are in registered domestic partnerships will be eligible for federal spousal benefits once the Social Security guidelines are completely spelled out.

California law explicitly endows registered domestic partners with the same rights and responsibilities as spouses, while the Social Security Act specifically reserves spousal benefits for wives, husbands and those considered a spouse for the purpose of inheritance when the deceased has not filed a will.

"That clearly holds for registered domestic partners," Birnie said.

The Social Security Administration, with the U.S. Department of Justice, is still adjusting its guidelines to abide by the high court ruling that struck down federal law prohibiting same-sex couples from accessing spousal benefits.

Advocates recommended anyone potentially eligible — including registered domestic partners, Birnie said — move forward with claims to mark the date to which any benefits should accrue.

Those seeking more information on potential claims can call (800) 772-1213, consult www.ssa.gov/same-sexcouples/ or take questions to a local field office.

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