At the Rocky Mountain Disability Law Group, we focus our practice on disability claims. This means we have had the opportunity to work on a vast number of disability cases and address a wide variety of unique issues. One question that comes up frequently in these cases regards the rights of same-sex couples. Ultimately, it all depends on certain specifics.
The rights of same-sex couples to get married and receive other benefits have been national news for a number of years now. There seems to be a trend in public opinion and legal decisions towards granting same-sex couples the right to marriage or civil unions, as well as protections against discrimination. Over a year ago, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, but kept its decision narrow so that states still have primary control over whether to allow same-sex unions.
While the national trend is towards granting more rights and protections to same-sex couples, the law is far from complete, comprehensive, or uniform. With respect to disability benefits, the rights that same sex-couples have depends on their legal status and where they are geographically located.
The approach of the Social Security Administration (SSA)t o claims by same-sex couples is outlined in an announcement on their website. In short, based on opinions from the Department of Justice (DOJ), the SSA states that it will "follow the laws of the state where the couple resides." In other words, couples who live in one of the 19 states where same-sex marriage is permitted are entitled to spousal benefits. Those that live in Washington, D.C., or states that acknowledge non-marital legal relationships (i.e. civil unions), are also entitled to spousal benefits. This latter category includes Colorado.
Unfortunately, those in states that don't recognize same-sex marriage or non-marital relationships are not currently eligible for spousal benefits. However, the SSA has been encouraging all same-sex couples to apply anyway. In fact, their frequently asked questions section for same-sex couples doesn't actually answer any questions; instead it encourages same-sex couples to apply for benefits and contact their local office with questions. Perhaps the agency is anticipating the policy changes that could occur if the Social Security and Marriage Equality Act passes.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) policy is similar and is also based on in-depth discussions with and guidance from the DOJ. The VA will allow the payment of benefits to otherwise qualifying spouses who are part of a same-sex marriage. In other words, it will treat same-sex marriages the same as traditional marriages when analyzing claims. However, only those who were married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages are eligible. In contrast to the SSA, the VA will not recognize same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships as the equivalent of marriage for benefits purposes.
If you have questions about social security, workers' compensation, or VA benefits, contact the Rocky Mountain Disability law group today. We know the law.