Money Talks | June 2016

By Melissa Myers and Michael J. Tucker, June 2016 Issue.

Michael J. Tucker: So in February, the Social Security Administration issued some new rules for same-sex couples that want to apply for spousal retirement or disability benefits, as well as for survivor benefits.

Melissa Myers: We’re taking the opportunity to spotlight not only the changes for same-sex couples, but also the types of Social Security benefits that people might not know about.

Tucker: Folks are generally aware that Social Security provides retirement benefits for Americans who have contributed to the Social Security system through payroll deductions at their jobs or through self-employment tax.

Myers: Perhaps lesser known, but still widely understood, are the Social Security disability benefits that can be available to American workers who become disabled during their working years.

Tucker: Both the Social Security Retirement and Social Security disability benefits extend not only to the worker – the “number holder” in Social Security bureaucratic jargon – but also to his or her spouse.

Myers: You mean both the number holder and the spouse can get a check?

Tucker: Often, yes. And surviving spouses (including same-sex spouses) and surviving minor children can qualify for Social Security survivor benefits based on the earnings history of a deceased number holder who was their spouse or parent.

Myers: Importantly for our community, there is also a stepchild benefit, even in cases where there is no formal adoption.

Tucker: So if Mary and Susie are raising Mary’s children and if Susie is providing one-half of their support (even though Susie is not a legal parent), then Mary’s children could qualify for stepchild benefits based on Susie’s earnings history if Susie dies while they are still minors.

Myers: All the stepparents out there, particularly those who are in precarious health, can take steps to ensure their stepchildren would qualify in case something happens to them.

Tucker: Another little-known Social Security benefit is a check for a surviving minor child, but also for a surviving parent of a disabled child, including an adult child as well as a minor child.

Myers: So you mean that if Mary and Susie are raising those children, and one of them is disabled, then if Mary dies and Susie is still alive and the disabled child is living with Susie, then Susie can get a Social Security benefit based on Mary’s earnings history?

Tucker: Yes, and this is important in our community because of the disproportionate number of children with disabilities who are adopted by loving LGBTQ families.

Myers: One feature of the new rules that you might not expect is that not only can same-sex married couples apply for such benefits, but certain unmarried couples who entered into registered domestic partnerships or civil unions can also. In Social Security jargon, registered domestic partnership and civil unions are called “non-marital legal relationships,” or “NMLRs.”

Tucker: For couples living in Arizona, the benefit of these rules will extend mostly to married couples, and not to couples who entered into NMLRs but never got married.

Myers: Overall, most legal and financial changes that happened in America because of same-sex marriage equality weren’t dependent on what state the couple lives in. By contrast, Social Security benefits based on “NMLR” status will still depend on what state the couple lived in when they applied for the benefit.

Tucker: That’s because of a quirky statute that’s still on the books, basing marital status for Social Security purposes on the state of residence of the couple when they apply for benefits.

Myers: How long do people have to be married before they are considered married for Social Security purposes?

Tucker: Generally, for survivor benefits, it’s 90 days. For the spouse to qualify for Social Security retirement and disability spousal benefits, as well as for Medicare, based on the number holder’s work history, it’s one year.

Myers: These rules are complex and sometimes counterintuitive. Consult the Social Security Administration and your advisers to determine your potential eligibility for benefits.

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