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Will the DOMA decision affect SSI benefits for same-sex couples?

Published on July 19th, 2013

Whether you’re receiving Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income, you probably already know that the amount of money you receive in benefits can change drastically depending on your marital status. Many know this because of a December 2003 study released by the Social Security Administration which determined that couples receiving SSI benefits who were cohabitating but were not married received 25 percent more in benefits than their married counterparts.

But with the U.S. Supreme Courts recent ruling against DOMA, some people here in Illinois may be left wondering what this could mean for their own SSI benefits down the road.

Unfortunately, the answer is not quite as clear as we’d like to think. Although the federal government may now recognize gay marriage, states still have the final determination on its legality. This means that the federal government may still deny benefits if a state does not recognize the marriage as being valid. Though we know this will be the case with tax and estate planning laws, it’s unclear whether this will be the case with disability benefits as well.

Let’s say for a moment that the statement above is true. Although Illinois law recognizes same-sex marriages as civil unions, it may not recognize it as a valid marriage. As a result, SSI benefits would not be affected by marital status and would guarantee couples an income level equal to 100 percent of the federal benefits rate, as explained by SSA.

Now let’s consider if the federal government did consider a same-sex marriage as being valid. Then the couple would then only be guaranteed 75 percent of the federal benefit rate, meaning they fare slightly worse than their non-married SSI counterparts. This is because the federal government assume there is a second income that can be used to offset living costs and therefore can provide less benefits overall.

Circumstances such as this can be quite confusing, and with the repeal of DOMA, far-stretching changes in federal laws could soon force many SSI beneficiaries to consider legal counsel if things get too complicated.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Social Security Benefits Now Available to Same-Sex Couples,” Jennifer Waters, July 14, 2013

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