Married LGBT Couples Must Consider Which States Recognize Their Marriage for Social Security

love is strange

Nearly all of us have to sit down at some point and plan how we’re going to fund our retirement. For married LGBT couples, the golden years might mean moving to a state where their marriage is legally recognized for Social Security purposes—and planning, in advance, for one of their deaths.

As AP journalist Ken Sweet explains in “For LGBT Couples, Retirement Becomes a Financial and Legal Minefield:”

When a husband or wife in a straight marriage dies, their spouses can typically collect Social Security benefits based on the higher earner’s work history. Not so for many gay spouses. Only widows or widowers in states that recognize same-sex marriage can get that higher income.

Why? Social Security differs from most federal programs in that the law requires it to use individual states’ definition of marriage. That requirement is why the Obama Administration was unable to extend Social Security benefits to all same-sex couples nationwide, even after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last year. Before then, the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriage at all, even in states where it was legal. Domestic partnerships are still unrecognized by the federal government.

It gets worse. Many LGBT couples have less retirement savings than their straight counterparts, due to job discrimination during their prime earning years. Some Baby Boomers who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s chose to spend their savings then, believing that they would not live to old age:

Many long-term AIDS survivors interviewed by the AP talked about poor financial decisions they made in the 1980s and 1990s — when they believed they were facing a death sentence — and are now paying for as they enter retirement.

And many LGBT couples do not have children, meaning that they are facing the burden of long-term care—of both themselves and a spouse—alone. (It’s interesting, though a bit off-topic, that Sweet writes about childless gay couples needing to prepare to hire in-home health aides, leaving the unspoken assumption that couples with adult children have built-in caretakers. Let’s just tell everyone that they need to prepare to hire an in-home health aide, okay? If it turns out your kids are able and ready to provide full- or part-time care, great, but it’s worth it for everyone to consider at least one alternative.)

It is infuriating to know that married LGBT couples do not see their rights extended from state to state; that, as Sweet notes, if a partner dies in a state that does not recognize gay marriage, the death certificate might read “single.” And, although the solution would appear to be “simple”—just stay in a state that recognizes your marriage and you’ll be fine—it discounts the reality of life. People move for jobs, to be near family, and all the rest of it. More than that, LGBT married couples should have the right to live in any part of the U.S. that they choose and have their marriage legally recognized.

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