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Married, With Benefits

August 21, 2015 | Posted In Family Law - Same-Sex |

The United States Supreme Court’s June 26th decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country has led many couples to the altar in celebration. While same-sex couples in New Jersey have been allowed to legally marry since 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling will change how spousal benefits may be calculated, particularly those awarded as part of the Social Security program.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in June of 2013 in United States v. Windsor, the ruling was not enough to enforce mandatory recognition of federal benefits as granted to same-sex spouses in all 50 states. The Windsor ruling merely required federal marital benefits to be extended to those who are legally married but not to those in civil unions. Based on this decision, the U.S. Social Security Administration has been paying spousal and survivor benefits to any same-sex couple who was legally married in a state that recognized gay marriage; but couples living in states that only allowed civil unions were, in essence, out of luck.

Now, the 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges has made it unconstitutional for all states to prohibit same-sex couples from getting married and it keeps states from refusing to recognize same-sex marriages obtained in other states as valid. This decision could affect how the Social Security Administration determines eligibility for spousal benefits now that all same-sex couples have access to legal marriages.

Social Security Benefits and Divorce

In order to determine when a couple receives Social Security benefits based on their marriage, the Social Security Administration has two dates to consider — the date the marriage was entered into and the date on which the state began to recognize same-sex marriages as legal. This could lead to retroactive application of Social Security benefits in some cases.

The issue of when to consider the start of a marriage becomes even more important in cases where a same-sex couple is divorcing. According to federal laws, a person cannot collect Social Security from an ex-spouse unless the two were married for at least 10 years. While it is easy to pinpoint when a heterosexual couple was legally married, it becomes much more difficult for same-sex couples to provide the same timeframe.

For instance, some couples may have spent 10 or 15 years together exclusively in a committed relationship or even a civil union, but under the law, they have only been married for the last 2 years. This puts their Social Security benefits claim in jeopardy, unless the administration can determine how to calculate the earlier years before gay marriage was legalized.

The Obergefell ruling has already sparked a widespread legal conversation about how to proceed as the shape of families across America changes and grows. Social Security benefits are only the beginning of what will be an ongoing push for change in marital benefits and rights. For more information regarding the state and federal laws, contact a New Jersey family lawyer at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, today.

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