Thanks to victories in two cases, Social Security survivor’s benefits will now be open to everyone, including all who suffer harm from discriminatory marriage laws, regardless of whether they have applied in the past.

The outcomes of Thornton v. Commissioner of Social Security and Ely v. Saul have important and positive implications for any surviving spouses or partners who were previously denied or who never applied for Social Security survivor’s benefits, either because they were not able to legally marry or were not married for long enough before their spouse died.

Thorton was a class action case filed on behalf of surviving partners who were unable to marry their partners in Michigan (prior to the marriage equality decision in June 2015) and therefore unable to apply for social security survivor benefits based on their deceased partner’s earnings.

Ely was filed on behalf of surviving spouses who were married less than the required nine-month period to qualify for survivor benefits, due to the fact that they couldn’t legally marry in their state.

In November 2020, federal district courts decided in their favor, but the federal government (under the Trump administration) appealed. Today Social Security has agreed to dismiss its appeals of these decisions.

What this means in a nutshell, is that if you are surviving spouse (age 60 or older, or age 50 with a disability) and your partner or spouse passed away before you were able to legally marry in Michigan (June 2015), and/or less than nine months after marriage equality was available in (March 2016) you may be eligible for survivor benefits based on your partner/spouse’s earnings.

See FAQs on Thorton and Ely below.

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