Same-sex couples will get full Social Security benefits

supreme court same sex marriage
Kathy Phelan (right) and her late wife, Kaye, legally married in 2013. But Phelan was denied survivor benefits from Social Security after Kaye succumbed to cancer last year.

Same-sex couples across the U.S. will now be able to collect spousal Social Security benefits, a Department of Justice official said Thursday.

While many couples may have thought that June's landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide would have also applied to Social Security benefits, that was unclear ... until now.

"With this good news, we are hopeful that widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they lived, who need Social Security spousal benefits earned through years of hard work will soon be able to receive them," said Susan Sommer, an attorney at Lambda Legal who represents two plaintiffs seeking benefits.

The Social Security Administration will begin processing pending spousal benefit claims for same-sex couples who lived in states that had not previously recognized their marriage, Sommer said.

Related: Same-sex marriage is legal. Here's what it means for couples

Kathy Phelan's claim has been pending for about a year. The news could mean that she gets an extra $1,224 a month.

"I'm dumbstruck, amazed and grateful," Phelan said Thursday night when she heard the news.

She and her late wife Kaye married legally in Washington State in 2013. But Kaye soon found out she had cancer and died five months before their home state of Arizona ended its ban on same-sex marriage in October of 2014.

The Social Security Administration had said it would not extend Phelan the same benefits of a heterosexual married couple because at the time of Kaye's death, they were not living in a state that recognized same-sex marriages.

Not only has Arizona lifted its ban on same-sex marriage since then, it became legal in all states in June after the Supreme Court's ruling.

Related: How business rallied for same-sex marriage

Married people whose spouses earned more are sometimes eligible for bigger benefits. Kaye, a geriatric nurse practitioner and college professor, had earned more money than Phelan, who worked as a teacher and artist. As a legally married couple, Phelan would be entitled to receive a survivor benefit equal to the amount of her spouse's entire Social Security check. In her case, that monthly check would be $2,160 -- which is $1,224 more than what she would get from her own benefit.

The Social Security Administration could not say when the new policy would be put in place. It is currently working with the Department of Justice to update processing instructions, which will allow it to recognize same-sex marriage for new and pending claims, a spokesman said Friday.

Anyone who thinks they should be eligible are encouraged to file for Social Security benefits right away. The filing date will be used determine the start date for benefits, he said.

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