People For the American Way

For LGBT Seniors Fighting DOMA is About Economic Survival

For the elderly, the fight against DOMA often isn’t only a question of receiving federal recognition for a marriage – it’s also a question of basic economic survival. At “The Harms of Marriage Discrimination: Older Same-Sex Couples and DOMA”, a panel organized by Freedom to Marry and Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), advocates, experts, and seniors alike testified to DOMA’s particular burden on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors:

  • While still working, relying on a same-sex spouse’s health insurance results in their benefits being treated as taxable income, while opposite-sex couples’ benefits come tax-free.
  • LGBT seniors cannot receive retirement benefits based on a spouse’s earning record. Normally, Social Security entitles one to 50% of a spouse’s benefits while both are alive, a benefit which stacks as “dual entitlement” if both spouses have worked.
  • The same 50% rule usually applies to disability benefits received in the case of a disabled spouse, but LGBT seniors are excluded from this as well.
  • Surviving LGBT widows and widowers receive neither Social Security’s lump-sum death benefit nor its survivor benefit based on a deceased spouse’s earnings.
  • Asset transfers to surviving spouses are subject to the federal estate tax when it comes to LGBT seniors, instead of being 100% exempt as for opposite-sex couples.

In sum, while working LGBT families pay into Social Security their entire lives just like everybody else, they are entitled neither to shelter upon retirement nor to security upon death or disability. The loss of all the above benefits – shared healthcare, retirement and survivor benefits – comes to an average loss per year of $40,000. Add to that an average $1.1 million per LGBT couple paid in federal estate taxes, and a major cause of the economic struggles faced by many LGBT seniors becomes clear.

Add again the unquantifiable emotional burdens of discrimination, and the answer is even clearer: DOMA must be dumped. Now.


Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, estate tax, freedom to marry, health care, LGBT, marriage, marriage equality, SAGE, SAGE Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders, seniors, Social Security