This Widow Was Denied Survivor Benefits Because Her Partner Was A Woman

Supermajority Education Fund

December 4, 2019

Helen Thornton had been in a committed relationship with Marge Brown for nearly three decades when Brown died of ovarian cancer in 2006. Now Thornton, who lives in Olympia, Washington, and her lawyers, say she should have survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) — which has refused to grant her them.

The SSA requires couples to have been married for at least nine months for a spouse to receive survivor benefits. Washington state, however, passed same-sex marriage six years after Brown’s death, and the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t recognize same-sex marriage until 2015. Thornton and her representation at Lambda Legal, an organization focusing on LGBTQ rights through litigation and policy work, are arguing that SSA is using an unconstitutional law — Washington state’s same-sex marriage ban — to justify denying Thornton benefits. They argue that because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such state bans, they can’t be used to justify the denial of survivor benefits. 

In November, Thornton and her representation appeared in federal court to argue that the refusal should be overturned and sought class certification for the case. The government has not tried to contest that lawsuit based on the class size, but on the grounds that other class members must have presented claims or exhausted their claims before the SSA to be included and that the class definition is too ambiguous. They are still waiting to receive a decision, as are other plaintiffs who filed separate, but similar, lawsuits in Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina

Peter Renn, counsel in the western regional office of Lambda Legal, told Supermajority News that it isn’t clear how many other people in the nation have experienced the same denial of benefits as Thornton, but that Lambda Legal’s legal help desk receives a lot of calls from people just like Thornton. 

“The federal government needs some pathway for this group of people to be treated equally and it’s not an answer for the government to essentially throw up its hands and say there’s no way we could possibly tell if someone was in a committed relationship,” Renn said. 

LGBTQ people in their retirement years are particularly vulnerable. According to a 2016 Williams Institute report, LGBTQ elders are more likely to live alone and less likely to have children to care for them than straight and cisgender elders. There are also lifetime disparities in employment, earnings, and the ability to build savings between LGBTQ elders and straight and cis elders.

Renn said the lack of benefits has clearly affected Thornton’s quality of life, noting that she has put off repairs on her home and limits the time she visits friends in neighboring cities because of gas costs. 

Thornton’s case is a reminder that the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that recognized same-sex marriage Obergefell v. Hodges did not resolve the challenges that queer couples experienced because their relationships were not recognized by state, local, and federal government for so many years.