Nina Smith

Gays and Lesbians Denied Social Security Benefits

Filed By Nina Smith | September 21, 2007 7:48 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: LGBT Retirement, Social Security

“Younger people can feel confident that Social Security will still be around when they need it to cushion their retirement.” – Ronald Reagan, 1982

Whenever I receive my Social Security Statement, I typically just scan the estimated benefit and toss it in the file with my tax records. This last time I actually decided to read all four pages and check out the links on the Social Security Administration website… this is when I learned that our benefits are greatly diminished because we are gay and cannot legally marry.

But before I rant about the inequities, let me explain how you can calculate your benefits. The annual mailer that we receive is just the tip of the iceberg… the website has a couple of useful calculators:

  • Quick Calculator: This calculator gives you a simple, rough estimate when you input your date of birth and this year’s earnings.
  • Online Calculator: Input your date of birth and your complete earnings history to get a benefit estimate. You may project your future earnings until your retirement date.
  • Detailed Calculator: This calculator provides the most precise estimates. It must be downloaded and installed on your computer.

Here’s what the Quick Calculator spit out for me:

Your estimated monthly benefit amount, beginning at age 67 in 2034, is $2,311.00.

Social Security benefits are the foundation on which to build a financially secure retirement. Savings and pensions also are key components of your retirement plan.

For the disability and survivors estimates, we assumed that you became disabled or died today. We did not use future earnings in calculating those estimates.

Disability Monthly benefit amount
You $2,231.00
Your spouse and children may also qualify for benefits.

Survivors Monthly benefit amount
Your child $1,677.00
Your spouse caring for your child $1,677.00
Your spouse at normal retirement age $2,237.00
Family maximum $3,915.80

Of course, this is not totally accurate since spouse isn’t legally defined. As my domestic partner, I might refer to Jeanine as my spouse, but the federal government doesn’t recognize her as such.

Here’s what I mean. HRC explains a few things about Social Security Survivor Benefits:

Although gay and lesbian Americans contribute to Social Security throughout their working lives, their families are denied the same benefits heterosexual Americans receive upon the death of a spouse. Specifically:

  • Partners who are Retired or Disabled are denied surviving spouse benefits because they were denied the right to marry.
  • Partners raising children are denied Social Security surviving parent benefits because they were previously denied the right to legally marry.
  • Children may also be denied Social Security surviving child benefits if the deceased parent was barred from securing a legal relationship to his or her child through second-parent adoption.

This loss of income can be substantial. For example, surviving partners who are 60 years old will lose an average of $9,780 a year — or approximately $166,000 if they live to the average life expectancy of 77. (Based on Social Security Administration calculations that Social Security survivor benefits averaged $815 per month in 2002.)

If there are surviving children, the loss of income is potentially even greater. For example, when a working parent was denied the opportunity to establish a legal relationship to his or her child through second-parent adoption, that child will also be denied the right to Social Security survivor benefits upon that parent’s death. This could translate to a loss of $900 per month, or $10,000 per year, for a child whose parent worked for at least 10 years and earned at least $50,000 in the last year of his or her life.

Last year, legislation introduced in the U.S House of Representatives as reported by The Advocate:

Would amend the Social Security Act to afford same-sex couples the same benefits, responsibilities, and obligations as others who pay into Social Security. The Equal Access to Social Security Act, H.R. 5152, would add the term ‘permanent partner’ to the Social Security Act in addition to the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ which are already present in the legal code.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler:

Does not address same-sex marriage but does provide gay and lesbian couples with some of the benefits married couples enjoy under the Social Security system. Under H.R. 5152, children of same-sex couples would be able to collect survivor benefits in the event of a parent’s death, just as children of federally recognized married couples may do.

In the Social Security system, gays and lesbians are “unmarried” and their benefits will be treated as such. Until the laws change, it’s one more reason our community needs to be adequately prepared for retirement. Save away!

Nina blogs about money over at Queercents.

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You are SO right about Social Security penalizing gays and lesbians. I'm straight but I've complained about this for years! "Legal" spouses who don't work a day in their life, and pay zero in Social Security benefits are granted FREE an additional 50% on top of his/her spouse's Social Security benefit. A relic from the old ages.

If the system allowed workers to put part of their 12.4% taxes in a personal Social Security IRA that the worker OWNED, then the assets in the account (which could be considerable over a working career) would be inheritable.

I've never been able to understand why the gay and lesbian community hasn't been screaming in support of those protected accounts. It wouldn't preclude working for legal "marraige" status, but personal accounts are a whole lot more likely!

You touched on something that I think is important too. I have no idea how old you are, but could you live off of $2231/month if you became disabled? Especially being aware that becoming disabled usually involves huge medical bills to pay and no other income?

As someone who became disabled in my early years, my disability amount is around $1000/month. I'm allowed to work, but not make over $900/month.

So, while I'm still young if I stay on the disability system, I'm stuck only being able to make $1900 a month (granted, benefits increase each year by a negligible amount) but that's still UNDER the amount you'd get automatically before adding in your extra work paycheck.

So why penalize those who would more than likely spend the longest time on the system to the lowest rate? Isn't that enforcing poverty on those already impoverished by medical bills?


Thanks for finding this post and taking the time to comment. You've inspired me to write a response that will post on Monday at Queercents. I appreciate you bringing the topic to my attention.


By the way, I'm forty and no, there's no way I could maintain my standard of living on $2231/month. I've never planned on Social Security being around for me in retirement or due to a disability. At a young age, an insurance agent educated me on the value of long-term disability insurance.

Obviously, I'm preaching to the choir, but Social Security is not a replacement or surrogate for disability insurance. At the most, it should be considered a last resort. Unfortunately, you're living what I'm trying to warn readers about.

In addition to long-term disability insurance, I'm at the age where I should begin to consider long term care insurance. I know forty sounds too young, but hear me out... Laurie and Marc at Queercents both covered this topic in detail:

"Don’t let youth lull you into a false sense of security. Although the majority of people who require long-term care are over the age of 65, a substantial 40% are between the ages of 18 and 64."

"Below are six Activities of Daily Living (ADL).

1. Dressing
2. Eating
3. Bathing
4. Transferring (moving from one place to another; getting up from a chair)
5. Continence (holding it in or needing a diaper)
6. Toileting (wiping your own bottom)

There is a risk that 60% of Americans will one day be unable to do 2 of those six activities.

Each American, because of his or her inability to perform at least 2 of the six aforementioned ADLs faces an average cost of $60,000 per year, according to MetLife, a leading Long-Term Care insurance provider."

The need for Long Term Disability and "Long Term Care is the number one reason people are wiped out of all their income, investments and real estate."