Perhaps Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Will Force Real Social Security Reform

Unsustainable social net may become even less sustainable


Seniors eating cat food? Blame gay marriage.
Credit: Lisa F. Young, Dreamstime.com

Lisa Leff, the Associated Press' go-to reporter on gay issues, takes note of some of the potential tax benefits and – more importantly – changes to entitlements that may come if the Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA):

For Mina Meyer and Sharon Raphael, two women in their 70s who fell in love more than four decades ago and have been married for more than four years, the U.S. Supreme Court's pending consideration of a law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing unions like theirs is about more than civil rights. It's about buying a new roof for their California home, replacing their 2005 Toyota Camry, and ensuring Meyer doesn't take a financial hit if Raphael dies first.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this month in a challenge to a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that denies legally married gay and lesbian couples federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples, including tax and Social Security benefits. A decision is not expected until the end of June, but accountants and tax attorneys anticipating the 18-year-old law's demise are already encouraging same-sex couples like Raphael and Meyer to seek prospective tax refunds, back retirement payments and other spousal subsidies they may have been denied.

The case accepted by the Supreme Court involves a woman trying to get a refund of the estate taxes she had to pay after her wife died in 2009. Had their marriage been recognized, she wouldn't have had to pay anything, and now she wants that $363,000 back.

Much more interesting and scary – but maybe in a good way? – is the possible impact on Social Security entitlements should DOMA get struck down and the federal government be forced to recognize same-sex marriages:

A 2009 study by The Williams Institute, a think tank on sexual orientation and the law at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimated that gay couples received an average of $3,060 less a year in Social Security benefits than married straight couples. For lesbian couples, the disparity rose to $5,412. The same study found that gay or lesbian widows or widowers lost out on more than $5,700 a year in survivor benefits than their straight counterparts received.

In the case of retirees Raphael and Meyer, it could mean an additional $7,335 year in Social Security benefits because Meyer, who worked in office jobs and a bookstore, would be entitled to the Social Security benefits of Raphael, who earned considerably more as a college professor for 40 years. That would boost their fixed monthly income by about 10 percent. Last year, on the advice of a professional colleague and with the high court poised to decide if DOMA is constitutional, Meyer applied for more than a year's worth of retroactive benefits as well as bigger future checks if the law is struck down.

If Social Security isn't sustainable as it stands, just imagine what's coming down the line. Here is Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal for reforming Social Security included in the GOP budget plan released today:

  • Require the President to submit a plan to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund
  • Require Congress to submit a plan of its own

Way to go out on a limb, Ryan. I'm surprised no same-sex marriage opponents have tried to scare the elderly with threats that they'll lose Social Security if the gays are allowed to get married.