President Obama's New Budget Proposal Includes a Big Change for Same-Sex Couples

Source: AP
Source: AP

President Obama's $4 trillion budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year features a key change that would allow legally married same-sex couples to receive Social Security spousal benefits regardless of where they live — even if it's a state in which same-sex marriage isn't recognized.

The president's plan is a major departure from current policy. At the moment, same-sex couples who move from a state that allows gay marriage to one that bars it also lose their Social Security benefits. Obama's bid scraps this mandate: "Under this proposal, such married couples would have access to these benefits," the 2016 budget, released Monday, reads.

The motion was loudly cheered on by same-sex marriage advocates. 

"[Obama's] proposal to ensure equal Social Security benefits would fix a crucial gap in federal protections for same-sex couples," Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, told the Huffington Post. "President Obama's leadership in helping bring the freedom to marry to all Americans will be a shining part of this president's legacy."

President Obama discusses the fiscal year 2016 budget proposal on Feb. 2.
Source: 
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The background: In October 2014, Kathy Murphy sued the Obama administration over her right to federal benefits. Murphy and her wife, Sara Barker, were married in Massachusetts in 2012, but because Murphy lived in Texas, she was unable to access Social Security death benefits following the passing of her spouse. 

"We are writing to tell you that you do not qualify for widow's benefits," the SSA said in a jarring July letter to Murphy. "You do not qualify for the lump-sum death benefit because you are not Sara Elizabeth Barker's widow or child"

The letter isn't just benefits, but the legal treatment of her marriage. "It's like getting kicked when you're down," Murphy told the New York Times. "Somebody applying for survivors benefits has already suffered loss. The last thing you want is someone to tell you your marriage isn't legal and you're not worthy."

Sara Baker, left, with Kathy Murphy in 2011.
Source: 
Kathy Murphy

Though the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that same-sex couples were eligible for federal benefits, the Social Security Administration denied Murphy's application to receive benefits, arguing that it was required to follow the laws of the state of residence, not the federal government's standards on marriage.

The takeaway: If the budget proposal is any indication, the Obama administration has taken notice of the issue. Though it's still unclear if and how Murphy's specific case will be affected by the potential budget, it appears that the administration is thinking ahead to possible similar future cases.

Of course, whether the budget will be approved is still unclear — it will need to pass through the Republican-controlled Congress. The two have come to blows over funding before, and there's no guarantee it won't happen again.

"It may be Groundhog Day, but the American people can't afford a repeat of the same old top-down policies of the past," said John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, according to Reuters.

As Evan Wolfson pointed out, however, there's a way to ensure the issue of federal benefits becomes moot: By doing away with marriage discrimination altogether.

"The only way to ensure same-sex couples nationwide have all the protections of marriage is for the Supreme Court to put the country on the right side of history by ending marriage discrimination throughout the United States, leaving no family and no state behind," he said, according to the Huffington Post.

h/t Huffington Post

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Sophie Kleeman

Sophie is a staff writer at Mic covering the intersection of tech and culture. She's based in New York and can be reached at sophie@mic.com.

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