Two years ago, the Supreme Court established the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry in every state in the U.S. with its ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. In turn, this decision enabled Social Security's marital benefits to apply to same-sex couples.
The ruling affects the benefits options related to you and your spouse as part of a married same-sex couple. Your marital status with the federal government is considered in establishing entitlement not only for Social Security benefits, but also Medicare entitlement, the ability to draw Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and the benefit rights of other family members.
As part of a couple, your collective work and income histories change eligibility rules from your pre-marriage status and give you a different set of options to consider. You now enter the new (and sometimes) confusing world of claiming spousal benefits and determining eligibility requirements. For example, your joint income can now affect the amount that you pay for Medicare premiums, but as an uninsured spouse, you may be able to enroll based on your spouse's work history – even that of a former spouse.
Minimum length-of-marriage requirements apply to Social Security benefits, and the timelines differ for each variety of benefit. Generally, in order to claim benefits on the earnings record of a spouse, you must have been married to that spouse for at least one year and both spouses must be over age 62 (the minimum age to claim benefits). Claiming at initial eligibility and not waiting until full retirement age (typically age 67) will reduce the amount of available benefits, just as it will for opposite-sex couples.
For survivor's benefits to apply, you must have been married to your spouse for at least nine months and still be married at the time of death. Claiming benefits as an ex-spouse requires that the marriage lasted at least ten years prior to the divorce and that the spouse claiming benefits remains single.
The SSA website contains further information on each variety of benefit along with corresponding eligibility requirements and options for claims. Since all of these benefits have time-based requirements, it is important that you register your new marital status with the Social Security Administration (SSA) at the earliest opportunity.
What if you have been in a civil union or other domestic partnership that preceded the legal right to marry your same-sex partner? The SSA urges you to apply right away, even if you are not sure that you are eligible for benefits under your existing relationship. The worst that can happen is that your benefit claims are denied. You are no worse off than you were, and you can find out the reason for denial and determine your future path based on SSA feedback.
As with opposite-sex couples, you have the obligation to notify the Social Security office of major life changes that can affect benefit status and/or proper payment. Examples include separation or divorce, marriage, moving, or the addition of a child into your household. Failing to report these changes could result in incorrect calculations of benefits and payments.
The SSA maintains a website to address the concerns of same-sex couples, including a more detailed list of frequently asked questions. Consult this site for any other concerns that you may have regarding same-sex benefits and eligibility, and visit your local SSA office or call the SSA directly if you are still not sure. Don't allow misinformation or bad assumptions to deny you or your spouse any benefits you have earned.
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