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Social security questions abound for Illinois civil union couples
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

This article shared 6795 times since Wed Aug 28, 2013
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Vernita Gray spent more than 40 years paying into social security. And she paid her dues in Chicago's LGBT community, pushing for rights throughout those four decades.

Now, she wants her partner, Pat Ewert, to have access to her social security benefits. The two had a civil union June 2, 2011 in a public ceremony to mark the start of Illinois civil unions in Millennium Park.

But Gray, like many Illinois civil union couples, does not yet know the fate of her benefits. Gray is among thousands of Illinoisans awaiting word on whether or not the Social Security Administration (SSA) will recognize her civil union.

"This is why we need marriage and not all these euphemisms," said Gray. "I'm an American in every state. Whatever is the benefit for my spouse should be the benefit for my spouse."

Predictions on whether SSA will recognize civil unions and domestic partnerships are mixed. Some groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have said that they think SSA should recognize such relationships, and they have encouraged same-sex couples approaching 62 years-old to apply.

But others note that the federal government does not recognize civil unions and say it is unlikely such benefits will be granted. Further confusing the matter, some advocates argue that extending social security benefits will undermine the message that civil unions fall short of marriage, an argument that LGBT groups are making to Illinois lawmakers who are wavering on marriage equality.

The result has been mixed advice and political strategy in Illinois amid an expensive push to pass an equal marriage bill.

Anthony Niedwiecki, associate professor at the John Marshall Law School, said such legal conundrums will plague the federal government and LGBT people until equal marriage is the law of the land.

These questions illustrate why civil unions fall short, he said.

But Niedwiecki argues that a case could be made for extending SSA benefits in states that offer same-sex partner recognition intended to replicate marriage.

While some states offer domestic partner registries with limited rights for LGBT couples, others have passed legislation mandating that all the rights inferred by marriage be made available to same-sex couples. That is the case in Illinois, where the state's civil union law offers marriage benefits regardless of gender without using the word "marriage."

"I think that [SSA is] going to be rethinking that issue," Niedwiecki said.

SSA may not have a choice. California Rep. Linda Sanchez introduced a bill earlier this month that would require SSA to provide benefits to same-sex civil union spouses and domestic partners.

The ACLU contends that couples in civil unions and domestic partnerships should be recognized by SSA and that couples who want those benefits, should pursue them.

"People should apply if they think they might be eligible for spousal benefits," said John Knight, LGBT project director at the ACLU of Illinois.

Knight wants SSA to interpret the law as broadly as possible so that same-sex couples who paid into social security are offered the same rights as married couples.

But Rick Garcia, policy advisor for The Civil Rights Agenda and an LGBT activist who pushed for civil unions, said he is torn on the issue.

"Civil unions are not marriages," Garcia said. "It goes to the heart of the whole discussion."

Civil unions were a stop-gap measure on the way to equal marriage, Garcia argues. But by their nature, they were intended to fall short of granting same-sex couples marriage rights. Expecting SSA to extend such benefits betrays the argument that civil unions brand same-sex couples as separate and less than, Garcia said.

Still, Social Security benefits can have real and significant impacts on many couples' lives, he acknowledges. It is hard to argue against extending them to Illinois civil union couples.

Niedweicki advises couples who want the benefits and are up for a fight to should pursue them because there is no penalty for being denied.

"Quite frankly, if it were me, I would file," he said.

The ACLU advises that couples who file for benefits do so in person, politely insist they are able to file for benefits and request a written denial if they are turned down. Those tips and other information on eligibility are available at:

This article shared 6795 times since Wed Aug 28, 2013
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