The federal government has begun paying Social Security spousal benefits for same-sex couples, but advocates for gays and lesbians in Iowa and Illinois say there still is widespread confusion over the state of federal benefits in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.
It has been about six weeks since the high court overturned the law that rejected federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The ruling opened the door to extending some federal benefits to gay and lesbian couples, and federal agencies have been sifting through laws and regulations to react to the ruling.
On Friday, the Social Security Administration posted a statement on its website saying that it is now processing and paying some retirement spousal claims for same-sex couples.
The agency is instructing personnel to pay spousal claims for same-sex couples who were married in a state that allows such marriages and live in states that recognize them. For those who are married but live in states, including Illinois, where such marriages are not recognized, the agency is putting the claims on hold.
Carolyn Colvin, the acting director of Social Security, also said that in the "coming weeks and months," the agency will develop and implement additional policy and processing instructions.
Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, said it is advising people to file claims if they think they may be eligible.
(According to its website, Lambda Legal's mission to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV.)
Advocacy groups are trying to get same-sex marriage legalized in Illinois, but even under the state's current civil union law, Lambda Legal thinks there is a "pretty rock-solid" legal case to be made that spousal benefits should be extended, Clark said.
In Iowa, the new instructions appear clear that spousal claims will be paid as long as other criteria are met.
In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling, many people thought that a broad range of federal benefits would follow, said an official from Iowa's main advocacy group for gays and lesbians.
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"People thought it was a blanket," said Donna Red Wing, the executive director of One Iowa.
Agencies, however, are incrementally moving toward incorporating the ruling into their own programs and procedures.
Red Wing said a lot has been done, but confusion still reigns.
"These are huge questions for people," she said.
The payment of Social Security claims is a key question simply because of the large financial role it plays in the lives of the elderly.
Even if somebody has not worked, he or she can qualify for spousal benefits if his or her husband or wife is receiving or eligible for benefits. At full retirement age, the benefit can equal half of the spouse's retirement amount.