Another victory for sanity as Trump administration told it must pay a lesbian widow the money she’s rightfully owed

Helen Thornton Lambda legal

The Trump administration has been told by a court to pay spousal survivor’s benefit to lesbian widow Helen Thornton, whose partner died before same-sex marriage was legalised in her state.

Thornton spent 27 years with Marge Brown before she tragically died at the age of 50 in 2006 from ovarian cancer.

In those years, the couple had a child together, and Thornton served as Brown’s carer for three years at the end of her life as she battled cancer.

Despite the many years Thornton and Brown spent together, Thornton was denied spousal survivor’s benefit by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 2015.

The SSA’s reason for rejecting her application was that she and Brown were not married at the time of her death – but same-sex marriage was not legalised in Washington state until 2012, making such a union impossible during Brown’s lifetime.

After facing repeated rejections from the SSA, Thornton approached LGBT+ law firm Lambda Legal for help.

On 11 September, a federal district court judge ruled that she is entitled to spousal survivor’s benefit in a landmark ruling for LGBT+ couples.

In his ruling, judge James Robart of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington said the Trump administration cannot use “an unconstitutional law that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation” to deny spousal benefits to same-sex couples.

But the judge didn’t stop there – he also recommended that a nationwide order be implemented extending benefits to other LGBT+ people who were unable to marry their since-deceased partners.

Helen Thornton says her ‘love and commitment’ to her wife was ‘no different than that between heterosexual couples’.

Helen Thornton and Lambda Legal first filed their lawsuit in September 2018. In January of this year, a federal magistrate judge recommended that Thornton should be entitled to spousal benefits, paving the way for September 2020’s victory.

“Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth, and I’m gratified that the judge understood that, even though we were barred from marriage, our love and commitment was no different than that between heterosexual couples who had the freedom to marry,” Thornton said in a statement.

“We gladly paid into the social security system through our jobs, and it is an enormous relief to know I’m entitled to the same financial protections that are available to surviving spouses.”

Speaking to them, Thornton – who is semi-retired – revealed that she has been living on $900 per month for the last few years and has been making ends meet by working as a dog sitter.

Following the court’s ruling on 11 September, she will be entitled to an additional $700 per month in spousal benefits.

“Margie and I could never file federal taxes together every year because we were seen as single,” she said.

We gladly paid into the social security system through our jobs, and it is an enormous relief to know I’m entitled to the same financial protections that are available to surviving spouses.

“Just from a financial point, lesbian and gay couples were disenfranchised financially by not having the option of getting married. It’s just a feeling that you’re second class citizens.”

Lambda Legal counsel Peter Renn said they are “delighted” for Thornton and other same-sex partners who “can no longer be treated as strangers in death to their loved ones”.

“Many of these couples built enduring relationships with each other that spanned decades, and they would have been honoured to assume the mantle of marriage, thereby qualifying for survivor’s benefits,” he said.

“Today, one more legacy of discriminatory marriage bans has been struck own and surviving same-sex partners will no longer be robbed of their earned benefits.”

It is expected that the federal government will appeal the ruling.