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Retired LGBT Couples Can Now Apply for Social Security Spousal Benefits

 by Ruth Schneider   Posted on October 1 2013

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The Social Security Administration is inviting retirement-age same-sex married couples and domestic partners to apply for spousal benefits.

"I am pleased to announce that Social Security is now processing some retirement spouse claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits where they are due," Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, said in a statement following the Supreme Court's decision to recognize same-sex marriages.

Social Security, the fund we all pay into with our payroll taxes, offers retirement benefits to married couples. This means one partner can sometimes receive higher payments based on higher earnings of their spouse or receive survivorship benefits. Up until this year, LGBT couples, because their marriages were not recognized, did not have access to spousal benefits.

In general, a couple will sign up for Social Security benefits when one or both reach retirement age -- early retirement is often at age 62.

The Social Security Administration says it is working with the Justice Department to iron out the details. But eligible retirement-age LGBT couples should apply as soon as possible. Payments will be retroactive to the filing date.

"I encourage individuals who believe they may be eligible for Social Security benefits to apply now, to protect against the loss of any potential benefits," Colvin's message states. "We will process claims as soon as additional instructions become finalized."

What's interesting is that couples living in states that currently do not recognize same-sex marriage are also encouraged to apply. They will accept applications from anyone in a same-sex marriage, civil union or registered domestic partnership.

Social Security offers a variety of spousal benefits, including items such as a "surviving spouse" benefit that includes a one-time $255 payout as well as additional payments based on the number of years a person worked (and contributed to the fund). Spouses will also be able to file for benefits based on their partner's work record, which means higher payments if one half of the couple was the higher wage-earner. It's also possible for one partner in a couple to delay payments while claiming a spouse's, and earn higher benefits later.

Here's what you need to know if you plan to apply:

Am I eligible?

Eligibility is based primarily on income and age (being age 62 or older), not the length of one's marriage. People are eligible for spousal benefits when their own benefit is less than half of their partner's, or when they want to delay receiving benefits based on their own work record. Spousal benefits are most beneficial to couples where one earns significantly more than the other.

Here's the government's eligibility tool.

How do I apply?

You can apply online for the spousal benefits. Surviving spouse benefits must be applied for in person. Making an appointment is recommended. Bring your marriage license or proof of registered domestic partnership or civil union status.

Further questions?

The Social Security Administration lists Regional Communications Directors who are charged with answering your questions.

In addition, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) offers an extensive guide for those applying for benefits.

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