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Social Security for Same-Sex Couples

As you have surely heard, on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that, “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”

The following articles do a good job of briefly summarizing the overall personal finance impacts:

But I haven’t yet seen a complete explanation of how this does/doesn’t change things with regard to same-sex couples’ ability to claim marriage-related Social Security benefits.

How Did Things Work Before the Ruling?

With regard to whether the Social Security Administration will recognize a given marriage, the Social Security Act itself — in Section 216(h)(1)(A) — explicitly imposes a state-of-residence standard. That is, the state in which the worker lives (or lived at the time of death) must recognize the marriage in order for the worker’s spouse (or surviving spouse or ex-spouse) to be eligible for benefits.

So, until the recent ruling, even if a same-sex couple got legally married in a state that recognized such marriage, if they lived in a state that didn’t recognize the marriage, they were out of luck as far as Social Security was concerned.

Now, however, states are required not only to allow same-sex marriage but also to recognize same-sex marriages that occurred in other states.

Can Same-Sex Couples Receive Spousal Benefits Immediately?

Each type of marriage-related benefit has a waiting period that must be satisfied:

  • In order to receive spousal benefits, you must (with two exceptions) have been married to your spouse for at least one year,
  • In order to receive widow(er) benefits, you must (with a few exceptions) have been married for at least 9 months by the time your spouse died, and
  • In order to receive spousal or widow(er) benefits as an ex-spouse, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.

So for couples who are getting married in the very near-term future*, none of the marriage-related benefits would kick in immediately. On the other hand, for couples who were already legally married — but who live in a state that, until now, didn’t recognize their marriage —  marriage-related benefits could kick in immediately if the applicable waiting period has already been satisfied (and the other relevant requirements for benefits are met).


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