Tuesday, the Social Security Administration (SSA) updated its policies and procedures regarding the ability of transgender individuals to receive benefits through their spouses. This announcement comes after months of advocacy by Lambda Legal on behalf of Robina Asti, a 92-year-old transgender woman who was denied survivor benefits by the SSA after her husband’s death.
“This is a critical development for all married transgender people, but is especially important for transgender older adults, who rely on the safety net of Social Security benefits,” said Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Seniors Program Strategist. “The old policy subjected every claim for spousal benefits by a transgender claimant to lengthy and excessive scrutiny, presuming that a spouse’s gender transition was a barrier to receiving benefits. This new policy does a 180 degree turn – it presumes the validity of most marriages regardless of whether a spouse is transgender and ends the discriminatory special treatment experienced only by transgender spouses.”
In Tuesday’s announcement, the SSA clarified that although its “past policy was to refer all marriage-based claims involving transgender individuals for a legal opinion from the Regional Chief Counsel[,] [o]ur new policy allows us to process most claims…without the need for a legal opinion.”
“The extension of Social Security spousal retirement and survivor benefits to older transgender adults can be lifesaving. This new policy allows for transgender seniors to receive their benefits as quickly as possible, and to age with greater certainty and security, rather than with fear,” added Loewy.
Lambda Legal’s client, Robina Asti, was denied the survivor benefits she should have received after her husband’s death for two long years. She finally received her benefits on Valentine’s Day after Lambda Legal filed an appeal and advocated on her behalf.
“Transgender marriages are no longer treated as suspect in the eyes of the SSA. The content and tone of the new guidance shows that the SSA has taken a big step forward in cultural competency about the transgender community. This important federal agency is providing greater dignity and demonstrating greater respect for transgender people,” said Dru Levasseur, Transgender Rights Project Director. “Today’s announcement removes many hurdles that transgender people had to overcome when they filed claims for spousal benefits. We hope no one has to ever again endure the disrespect that Ms. Asti experienced.”
Background on Asti Matter:
In a 2004 ceremony in an airplane hangar in Orange County, New York, Robina, a World War II veteran and pilot, married her longtime sweetheart, Norwood Patton. In June 2012, Norwood passed away at 97 years old. On July 27, 2012, Robina applied in person for survivor benefits through the SSA. Though Robina already receives Social Security benefits, being able to claim survivor benefits would increase her monthly check by about $500.
On April 24, 2013, the SSA notified Robina that her survivor benefits under Norwood’s Social Security record were denied because “her marriage does not meet the requirements under Federal law for payment of Social Security widow’s benefits,” stating that her marriage was not valid because she was “legally male” at the time of their wedding. In June 2013, Lambda Legal filed a request for reconsideration on Robina’s behalf. In February, after months of advocacy, Lambda Legal announced the Social Security Administration (SSA) paid Robina Asti, a 92-year-old transgender woman, the survivor benefits she was denied after her husband’s death.
Watch Robina’s story here.