Victory! SSA Grants Spousal Benefits to Texas Widow in Lambda Legal Case

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March 8, 2016
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Sara Barker and Kathy Murphy

Today Lambda Legal announced the resolution of its lawsuit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) brought on behalf of Kathy Murphy, a Texas widow denied spousal benefits after the death of her wife, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (the National Committee).

Susan Sommer, National Director of Constitutional Litigation at Lambda Legal, said:

The Social Security Administration has finally adjusted Kathy’s monthly SSA benefit to recognize the reality that she was married to her wife Sara and is a widow entitled to the same treatment as other survivors.

We are also pleased to announce that the SSA has finally updated its instructions to its staff in accordance with the historic Obergefell v. Hodges ruling last June. SSA has also issued other guidance to staff to manage claims from the LGBT community. With this good news, including SSA’s long-awaited changes to its policies to conform to Obergefell, we are hopeful that LGBT widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they live, will be able to receive the Social Security spousal benefits to which they are entitled.

LGBT people, who earned benefits through years of hard work, deserve to receive them without further delay and at long last to have their relationships treated with dignity by the federal government. Although SSA still needs to update some of its instructions and practices to fully recognize LGBT families and their rights to benefits, these recent developments come as a very welcome step. We call on the SSA to prioritize awarding benefits to the many LGBT people who were unfairly denied them in the past.

For more than 30 years, Texas residents Kathy Murphy and Sara Barker shared their lives together.  Three decades after they first met, Kathy and Sara legally married in Massachusetts in 2010.  Like other married couples, they hoped to grow old together and to live out their retirement years in safety, security and dignity.

Tragically, Sara lost her battle with cancer in March 2012 at age 62, leaving Kathy a widow. Because the couple lived in Texas, which refused to recognize their marriage at the time of Sara’s death, SSA also wouldn’t recognize the marriage, denying Kathy spousal survivor’s benefits earned by Sara over a lifetime of work.

Kathy said:

Sara and I were blessed with nearly 32 years together. We worked hard to close all the gaps before she died, and I’m very relieved that the federal government is finally doing its part. The Social Security benefits I will receive will ensure that I can take care of the home that Sara and I shared together.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee, said:

The basic tenets of the Social Security program are that if you contribute to the system throughout your working life, you and your family will receive those earned benefits in retirement, death or disability. We are pleased that the Social Security Administration now has instructions for its staff on how to right a wrong for thousands of same-sex spouses who have been denied benefits because their home states refused to recognize their marriages.

The National Committee, the organizational plaintiff in the case, is a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization dedicated to protecting Social Security for all generations and communities, including same-sex couples and their families. Kathy Murphy is a member of the National Committee.

The complaint filed in the District of Columbia federal district court by Lambda Legal and co-counsel Dechert LLP argued that SSA’s refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who lived in states that discriminated against their marriages, and denial of Social Security benefits to deserving spouses, violated the federal Constitution.

In addition to now providing Kathy monthly spousal benefits as it would any other surviving spouse, SSA has updated its instructions to staff on processing the claims of members of the LGBT community.  These instructions include important steps to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples from the date of their marriages, regardless of the state where the couple lived.

Those with questions or concerns, or who continue to be denied Social Security benefits, can contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 1-866-542-8336 or www.lambdalegal.org/help.