The Supreme Court's landmark ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on Wednesday will open the door for married same-sex couples to reap the same Social Security benefits afforded traditional couples — eventually.
That means gay couples in states where marriage is legal would be entitled to spousal benefits during marriage and survivor benefits after the death of one spouse. If they have minor dependent children at the time one spouse claims benefits, the children may also be entitled to benefits.
And if one or both spouses wait until at least their full retirement age to claim benefits, they would be able to engage in creative claiming strategies as traditional married couples such as filing a restricted claim for spousal benefits or filing and suspending benefits in order for one spouse to collect benefits while the other's continued to accrue delayed retirement credits in order to maximize lifetime income.
Currently Social Security spousal benefits are limited to heterosexual married couples, in line with the federal law that the court has ruled as unconstitutional. But don't expect the Social Security Administration to take a long time updating its rules to bring them in line with the new law of the land. Indeed, I asked the SSA's press office about that very topic and netted this e-mail response: "The President has directed the Attorney General to work with other members of his Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, and its implications for Federal benefits and obligations – including benefits administered by this agency – is implemented swiftly and smoothly."
In the meantime, here's some reaction from experts who have been watching the issue closely.
“For too long same-sex couples and many of their children have been denied access to Social Security benefits, even though they have contributed to the program throughout their working lives,” Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said in a statement. “Overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) should end this benefit discrimination by enabling the Social Security Administration to allow same-sex spouses to receive the Social Security spousal and survivor benefits they are otherwise entitled to."
The ruling will affect about 1,000 federal regulations, including access to Medicare.
“Same-sex spouses will have access to spousal benefits they were once denied, including the financial security afforded by Social Security and equal treatment for those newly eligible to Medicare,” Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said in response to the Supreme Court ruling.
“Marriage equality brings same-sex couples that much closer to retirement security,” Mr. Baker added.