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How does the DOMA decision affect Social Security disability?

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced in June that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, it quickly became apparent that policy changes would have to be made at a wide variety of federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration. Recently, the SSA’s acting commissioner announced that the agency has already begun processing Social Security retirement benefit changes for couples across America whose marriages have now been legally recognized for federal purposes.

If you’re a Social Security disability beneficiary in a legal same-sex marriage, you may be wondering if the end of DOMA could impact your benefits. While the Social Security Administration is currently working with the Department of Justice to clarify the legal issues, the answer appears to be yes, at least for beneficiaries of the Supplemental Security Income program.

Marriage directly affects Social Security retirement benefits, along with survivors’ benefits for widows, widowers and children. It does not affect Social Security Disability Income benefits. While there are no survivors’ benefits through either SSI or SSDI, once SSDI recipients reach retirement age, their disability benefits are automatically transitioned into retirement benefits, which do have survivors’ benefits.

The impact on SSI benefits for same-sex couples is likely to be more immediate, because both spouses’ income is taken into account when calculating benefits. Also, if both spouses receive SSI, those benefits will probably need to be adjusted from the individual rate to the couples’ rate now that same-sex marriages are federally recognized.

Unfortunately for SSI beneficiaries, that probably means your benefits will be reduced, but the agency has not yet said whether the reductions will be retroactive. If they are, it is also unclear whether they would be retroactive to the date of the Supreme Court’s decision or to the date of your marriage. If you are concerned about your benefits, call your local Social Security office. Here in La Crosse, the number is 866-770-2345.

In any case, the law requires you to notify the SSA of any marriage. If you stand to benefit from the change, you should do so right away, but no deadline has been announced. Generally, however, you are expected to notify the agency of marriages, divorces, name changes and changes of address in a reasonable period of time.

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