Woman denied survivor’s benefits after losing same-sex partner of 27 years

Helen Thornton, of Washington, was with her partner Marge for 27 years

The US Social Security Administration is facing legal action, after refusing to approve survivor’s benefits for a woman whose same-sex partner died before they could legally marry.

Helen Thornton, of Washington, was with her partner Marge Brown for 27 years. The couple raised a son together, and Thornton served as Brown’s carer for three years before her death from cancer in 2006.

However, as Brown died before same-sex marriage became legal in the state, the US Social Security Administration refuses to recognise their relationship – denying Thornton, who is now 64, access to survivor’s benefits that a heterosexual spouse would be entitled to from age 60.

On Thursday, LGBT+ law firm Lambda Legal asked a federal court to override the decision to deny benefits to Thornton  and to end discrimination against other same-sex surviving partners who were barred from marriage.

‘We cared for each other in sickness and in health’

Thornton said: “Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth.

“Like other committed couples, we built a life together, formed a family, and cared for each other in sickness and in health.

“Although we wanted to express our love for each other through marriage, discriminatory laws barred us from doing so before Margie’s death.

“Now, in my retirement years, I’m barred from receiving the same benefits – essential to my financial security – as other widows, even though Margie and I both worked hard and paid into the social security system with every paycheck.”

Social Security Administration ‘systemically discriminates’ against same-sex couples

Social Security rules stipulate that couples must have been married for at least nine months to qualify for survivor’s benefits – which excludes people who were in committed same-sex relationships before it was legal for them to marry.

Thornton’s lawyers told the US District Court for the Western District of Washington that the policies result in unconstitutional discrimination.

Helen Thornton and her late partner Marge

Helen Thornton and her late partner Marge (Courtesy Lambda Legal)

Lambda Legal counsel Peter Renn said: “By requiring same-sex couples to have been married at a time when that was impossible for them under state law in order to access survivor’s benefits, the Social Security Administration is now doubling down on unlawful discrimination that continues to harm surviving same-sex seniors every single month they are deprived of the benefits for which they paid.

“Helen and Marge were together for 27 years. They built a home, raised a child, and paid into Social Security like any committed couple. But because they couldn’t marry, Social Security is denying Helen the essential survivor’s benefits that she and Marge paid for.

“Heterosexual surviving spouses are able to count on the critical financial protection of survivor’s benefits after the death of their loved ones, but SSA casts surviving same-sex partners like Helen aside, even though they paid the same lifetime of contributions from their paychecks.”

Max Richtman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said: “Same sex partners should not be denied Social Security survivor’s benefits when discriminatory laws prevented them from getting married in the first place.

“Basic fairness demands that they receive the same benefits as married couples. It’s long past time to right this wrong.”