A Washington woman appeared in court this week as part of a lawsuit against the federal government for refusing to recognize her same-sex relationship.
Helen Thornton met her partner, Marge Brown, in 1978 through an art group. The two lived together for nearly 30 years, raising a family. Brown passed away from ovarian cancer in 2003, one year before Massachusetts became the first state in the country to recognize the freedom to marry and nearly a decade before marriage was legalized nationwide.
Because they were not legally married, the Social Security Administration refused to grant Thornton survivor benefits in 2015 when she became eligible. Those benefits would amount to around $1,000 a month.
“We would have gotten married had we been allowed to get married but were not allowed to by the state of Washington,” Thornton told the Seattle news outlet KIRO.
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the freedom to marry in 2015, the justices found that bans on marriage equality violate the constitution. For that reason, other courts have ruled that couples who were unable to marry in past decades may be treated as though they were actually legally wed.
Lambda Legal attorney Peter Renn wrote in a statement, “Heterosexual surviving spouses are able to count on the critical financial protection of survivor’s benefits after the death of their loved ones, but SSA casts surviving same-sex partners like Helen aside, even though they paid the same lifetime of contributions from their paychecks.”
Numerous similar lawsuits have been filed over SSA’s refusal to recognize same-sex relationships. In North Carolina, Frederick Colosimo is currently suing the government for refusing to extend spousal benefits. He married his husband in 2013, but when his husband died seven months later, SSA ruled that they weren’t married long enough for benefits to apply. The couple had been together for 43 years.
Similarly, Michael Ely and James Taylor of Arizona were together for about 40 years when they married in 2014. Taylor died six months after they married, and SSA denied benefits due to the relationship being, in their judgment, too short.
And just last week in Florida, a court ruled that a gay man was entitled to nearly $160 million after his partner was killed by smoking. Lawyers for the tobacco industry argued that because one of them died before they were able to marry, the surviving partner couldn’t be considered a legal spouse.