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What Social Security Benefits Can Same-Sex Couples Get Now?

Dan Caplinger, The Motley Fool

Nearly every American participates in the Social Security program, whether it's through collecting benefits, paying payroll taxes into the system, or simply having a Social Security number for tax and employment purposes. For a long time, though, same-sex couples didn't have access to the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples, which forced a lot of complicated financial planning to try to make the most of a bad situation.

Now, though, Social Security recognizes the impact that a recent Supreme Court decision had on the rights of same-sex couples. In response, the Social Security Administration has made a special outreach effort to same-sex couples to explain their rights and to provide some useful information about how they can claim the benefits that they're entitled to receive.

Same-sex couples and Obergefell

Prior to 2015, same-sex couples faced a potential nightmare in trying to get Social Security benefits. The law governing same-sex marriage itself was a patchwork, with some states allowing all couples to get married within their boundaries, and others recognizing marriages in other states without explicitly allowing same-sex marriage themselves.

Two men in formal wear holding hands facing each other in front of an officiant holding a book, on a beach.

Image source: Getty Images.

For Social Security, rules were even more confusing. Benefit decisions were made based on whether the couple's state of residence recognized their marriage. So if a couple moved from where they had gotten married to a state in which they couldn't have gotten married, Social Security would no longer pay benefits.

The Supreme Court's decision in Obergefall v. Hodges fundamentally changed the SSA's handling of same-sex benefits. By recognizing same-sex marriage federally regardless of where the marriage occurred, Obergefall forced the SSA to acknowledge the constitutional rights of same-sex spouses.

How same-sex couples can get benefits

Social Security benefits are now available to same-sex couples in several instances. The SSA recognizes marriages in all states, but it also recognizes nonmarital legal relationships in some circumstances, including some civil unions and domestic partnerships. Certain relationships as defined internationally also make recipients eligible for Social Security benefits.

The full range of benefits historically available to different-sex spouses is now available to same-sex spouses. Same-sex spouses can collect spousal benefits based on the other spouse's work history for their joint lifetimes, and a surviving spouse can collect survivor benefits based on the deceased spouse's record. Children can claim benefits based on the work records of both of their same-sex parents, as long as they're recognized as the children's legal parents. If one same-sex spouse becomes disabled, family members can collect disability benefits if they meet the eligibility requirements set forth for all married couples.

With these rights come obligations. For instance, same-sex couples are required to tell the SSA when they get married, divorced, or remarried, as those events can all have an impact on what benefits they're entitled to receive from the program.

Don't give up your benefits

Even though several years have passed since the Obergefell decision, some same-sex couples still haven't claimed the benefits to which they're entitled. Social Security strongly recommends applying right away, because the date of filing is important in determining the start of any Social Security benefits that you should receive. Waiting further could lead to your missing out on benefits that you could have gotten if you'd been more diligent.

Same-sex couples had to wait a long time for their rights to be fully recognized. With Social Security now recognizing marriages between same-sex spouses, you should take full advantage of the benefits to which you're entitled.

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