The Social Security Administration (SSA) recently took emergency steps to clear up a penalty levied against same-sex married couples as a result of the agency’s previous refusal to recognize their marriages.
As described in an interesting article from Special Needs Answers, the agency recently released an Emergency Message reversing it’s previous policy of levying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) overpayment penalties against same-sex couples whose marriages initially weren’t recognized by the federal agency.
SSI benefits have strict income eligibility limits. If you make too much, then you’re out of luck. In calculating an applicant’s income limit, a portion of the applicant’s non-disabled spouse’s income is counted against that limit. This process is known as “deeming.”
During the awkward period between states beginning to legalize same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Windsor that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, the SSA (like many federal agencies) declined to recognize these otherwise legal unions. As such, same-sex married applicants actually briefly had an easier time qualifying for SSI benefits because they were able to benefit from their spouse’s income without it being subject to the “deeming” requirement.
Once the Supreme Court’s decision came down, however, the SSA reversed course and decided that all same-sex married applicants should have been subject to the deeming requirements from the date of their marriages and that they’d been wrongly collecting SSI benefits. It then immediately sent out overpayment penalty notices to those who fit this particular description, effectively looking to penalize them for the government’s refusal to recognize their marriage in the first place. Unsurprisingly, this action led to a major outcry on behalf of the beneficiaries, whom did nothing wrong, including a class action suit against the government.
The SSA recently issued the Emergency Message in response to the outcry, requiring that waivers of penalties be automatically filed for anyone affected by the previous policy and that these waiver requests be presumptively honored. In short, the vast majority of those assessed these overpayment penalties will have them overturned. It’s important to note, that the new policy applies only to those who were penalized for being legally married while the SSA wasn’t recognizing same-sex unions. Going forward, the spousal deeming requirements will apply to all married couples. So, while many same-sex couples will still likely lose the extra SSI benefits they briefly qualified for under the old system, at least they won’t be actively penalized because of the government’s discrimination.