On September 25, 2018, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) on behalf of a 63-year-old lesbian seeking spousal survivor benefits based on her relationship with her partner of 27 years, who died in 2006 before same-sex couples in the state of Washington were able to marry.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Helen Thornton in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington argues that SSA’s exclusion of same-sex couples from survivor’s benefits based on their inability to marry is unconstitutional.
“The federal government is requiring surviving same-sex partners like Helen to pass an impossible test to access the benefits that they’ve earned through a lifetime of work: they need to have been married to their loved ones, but they were barred from marrying by discriminatory laws then in existence,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn.
“We are beyond the day when the government can deny equal treatment to same-sex couples,” Renn added. “But, by withholding these benefits, the federal government is breathing life into the same discriminatory marriage laws that the Supreme Court has already struck down.”
“Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth,” said Helen Thornton, the plaintiff in the Lambda Legal lawsuit. “Like other committed couples, we built a life together, formed a family, and cared for each other in sickness and in health.”
Thornton added, “Although we wanted to express our love for each other through marriage, discriminatory laws barred us from doing so before Margie’s death. Now, in my retirement years, I’m barred from receiving the same benefits as other widows, even though Margie and I both worked hard and paid into the social security system with every paycheck.”
It’s a fight for humanity and decency.
“The Social Security Administration refuses to recognize our relationship and treats us as if we were legal strangers,” Thornton added.
Thornton and Brown were in a committed relationship with one another from 1979, when they were both 23 years old, until 2006, when Brown died of cancer at age 50. Thornton was Brown’s caregiver during her three-year battle with cancer.
Brown was also survived by a son, whom she and Thornton raised from birth. Social security generally requires that couples be married for at least nine months before a spouse dies in order for the surviving spouse to qualify for survivor’s benefits, but for many same-sex couples, that was impossible.
“Same-sex couples who weren’t able to marry faced discrimination throughout their lives, and now the surviving partner faces it all over again, after their loved one has died. It’s like pouring salt in a wound,” Renn said.
“Denied equality in life, they are denied equality once again in death. These benefits are as essential to the financial security of surviving same-sex partners in their retirement years as they are to heterosexual surviving spouses,” Renn added. “But the government is holding their benefits hostage and imposing impossible-to-satisfy terms for their release.”
Thornton is semi-retired and takes care of animals to supplement her monthly social security income. She applied for survivor’s benefits in 2015, shortly before she would have otherwise been eligible to begin receiving survivor’s benefits at age 60 based on Brown’s work record.
SSA denied her application based on the fact that she and Brown were not married at the time of Brown’s death in 2006, even though that was impossible in the state of Washington, which did not permit same-sex couples to marry until 2012.
Read about the case: Thornton v. Berryhill.
Lambda Legal’s attorneys working on the case are: Peter Renn, Tara Borelli, and Karen Loewy. They are joined by Robert Thornton and Linda Larson with Nossaman LLP.