James Taylor and Michael Ely of Arizona were together as a loving couple for 43 years having met in 1971 when Taylor was 20-years-old and Ely was 18-years-old.
In 1994, they moved to Tucson, Arizona. Taylor was the primary wage earner, while Ely managed their household.
After all those years together, they married as soon as they could when a court struck down Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014.
Sadly, six months later, Taylor passed away of cancer.
But when Ely filed for Taylor’s Social Security benefits (which Taylor paid into his whole life), he was denied.
It turns out the Social Security Administration requires couples to be married for a minimum of 9 months before a survivor can access benefits.
It’s worth noting that the couple would have married sooner but were barred from doing because of Arizona’s marriage ban.
It would seem logical that a well-documented relationship of 43 years would somehow be able to overcome this legal snafu.
“Even though we’d been together for 43 years, I’m barred from receiving the same benefits as other widowers,” says Ely. “Even though my husband had worked hard for 40-plus years and paid into the social security system with every paycheck.”
Lambda Legal has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Social Security Administration saying the nine-month marriage requirement for social security survivor’s benefits is unconstitutional where same-sex couples were not able to be married for nine months because of discriminatory marriage laws.
“The federal government is requiring surviving same-sex spouses like Michael to pass an impossible test to access benefits earned through a lifetime of work,” said Peter Renn of Lambda Legal. “Michael and his husband got married as soon as they could, less than three weeks after Arizona ended its exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, but they were only able to be married for six months before Michael’s husband died of cancer.”
"Now, the Social Security Administration is allowing the heartbreak of discriminatory marriage bans to persist by holding same-sex couples to a standard that many could not meet, insisting that they have been married for nine months even where it was legally impossible for them to do so.”
Lambda Legal points out that the couple did have a commitment ceremony in 2007.
“These benefits are as essential to the financial security of surviving same-sex spouses in their retirement years as they are to heterosexual surviving spouses,” says Renn. “But the government is holding their benefits hostage and imposing impossible-to-satisfy terms for their release.”
Lambda Legal filed a similar lawsuit in September against the Social Security Administration on behalf of a 63-year-old lesbian in Washington state who was unable to marry her partner of 27 years due to the ban on same-sex marriage in that state.