Gay widower wins landmark legal battle for the Social Security benefits of the man he loved for 43 years

Gay couple Michael Ely and James Taylor

A US federal court has ruled that a gay widower is entitled to claim spousal benefits of his husband, who tragically died just six months after their wedding.

Michael Ely and James A. Taylor had been in a relationship since 1971, when they were when 18 and 20 years old. They married in 2014 just three weeks after it was legalised in their state of Arizona.

“My husband was the love of my life,” Ely said. “Like other committed couples, we built a life together and cared for each other in sickness and in health.”

Taylor sadly lost his battle with cancer shortly after they were wed. After his death, Ely attempted to claim his social survivor benefits but was denied.

The benefits are based on a deceased person’s income and are given to their spouse if the spouse outlives them. The administration refused to grant Ely’s request as the couple hadn’t been legally married for the requisite nine months – though they’d been together for 43 years.

He enlisted the help of LGBT+ nonprofit Lamba Legal and filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all same-sex couples denied social security benefits because of gay marriage bans.

This week, a federal judicial magistrate ruled Ely is indeed entitled to the benefits, and that the denial of these benefits was based on discrimination.

“Because same-sex marriage is a fundamental right, and the underpinnings of the duration-of-marriage requirement has relied on the unconstitutional ban of that right, it cannot be said to be rationally related to a legitimate interest to a surviving spouse such as Mr Ely,” the ruling states.

Ely was delighted with the ruling. He said in a statement: “It is gratifying to have the court today recognise the 43 years of love and commitment that my late husband and I shared, rather than looking only at the date on a marriage certificate that we were denied for most of our lives.”

Lambda Legal’s Peter Renn said it was a “tremendous victory” for many surviving same-sex spouses who were locked out of critical benefits because of unlawful marriage bans.

“It is impossible to overstate the significance of this victory, not just for the number of people it affects, but for vindication of their constitutional rights,” he said.

The landmark judgment is likely to have broader implications for other legal cases, including two same-sex couples in North Carolina and Washington who are suing the social security administration for similar reasons.