Webster Phillips, senior legislative representative of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, explained that last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling began the process of extending Social Security benefits to same-sex married couples.
“Since the beginning of the Social Security program in the 1930s, Social Security has been a family benefit. That means if you’re a worker and you become covered for Social Security benefits, the benefits package you receive doesn’t just provide protection for you, it also extends to your spouse and children,” Phillips said. “Until the Windsor decision was handed down, the Social Security package made available to same-sex married couples was quite a bit different than the package available to heterosexual families; it basically didn’t extend spousal benefits, widow benefits, there were limitations on the benefits for children, in particular for stepchildren. But all of that was swept away by the Windsor decision to some extent.”
But, because the Social Security Administration recognizes couples based on their state of residence, rather than the state in which their marriage was celebrated, couples who live in non-recognition states were excluded.
The May 20 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, however, made local couples eligible to file.
Phillips, who worked for more than 30 years at the Social Security Administration, including almost a decade leading the agency’s Office of Legislative Development, noted that couples who are already married out of state, or couples who are getting married, and are of the eligible ages should apply immediately.
“Time of the essence because the benefits can start as soon as you make the application,” Phillips explained. “If they’re of that age, if they have children or if the person they’re married to is deceased, they need to go to a Social Security office and find out if they qualify for benefits, or if they qualify for new benefits if they’re already receiving benefits. Social Security was just seen by the community as a retirement or disability benefit, but this is now a family benefit, and that’s really the key thing that needs to be on the radar of the community.”
Phillips cautioned that applicants should consult Social Security representatives instead of trying to figure out eligibility themselves to get the process started as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“It’s really important to not try to be your own claims representative. You have to go down to the office and begin filling out an application. That starts the whole process. Without it, no benefits can accrue. Accrual begins with the application.”
For a listing of local Social Security offices, visit www.ssa.gov/phila/.