(619) 505-7777

How DOMA harms older LGBT couples

WASHINGTON – With a Supreme Court decision expected this month in two marriage cases, a panel conducted this morning discussed the harms of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on older same-sex couples.

Sponsored by Freedom to Marry and SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), the panel was held at the National Press Club and moderated by political strategist and CNN commentator Hilary Rosen.

Under DOMA, married same-sex couples are denied more than 1,100 protections and responsibilities automatically afforded to other married couples, including Social Security survivor benefits, access to health care and family leave, the ability to pool resources without adverse tax treatment, parenting rights, and familial status for immigration purposes. For older gay and lesbian couples, the harms can be financially debilitating.

Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE, gave opening remarks at today's event, followed by Sarah L. Byrne, senior legislative representative at the Alliance for Retired Americans, and Web Phillips, senior legislative representative at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

A panel of experts, advocacy leaders and and an LGBT senior followed, featuring:

* Dr. Yanira Cruz, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging

* Paul Nathanson, executive director of the National Senior Citizens Law Center

* Stacy Sanders, federal policy director at the Medicare Rights Center

* Thomas Sciacca, a New York City attorney with expertise in estate and disability planning

* Imani Woody, an LGBT senior and director and founder of Mary’s House for Older Adults

“Today’s panel highlighted the importance of marriage equality for all older couples," said Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE.

"Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders are less financially secure and experience poorer health than American elders as whole. Yet they are frequently treated as second class citizens by the federal programs designed to protect older Americans, many of which are built on the presumption of marriage. Even in the few states that recognize marriage for same-sex couples, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents legally married spouses of the same sex from fully accessing benefits that can improve their health and economic well-being, from Social Security to retiree health and survivorship benefits,” Adams said.

Dr. Yanira Cruz, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging, also spoke.

"One of the Latino community's core values is understanding and inclusion, so DOMA's always been an affront to both our dignity and our rights as Americans to a fair system. We have faith in the Supreme Court's ability to see DOMA for what it is -- discrimination -- and strike it down in the name of justice," Cruz said.

Paul Nathanson, executive director of the National Senior Citizens Law Center, talked about DOMA's affect on older LGBT Americans.

"There's nothing more frightening than aging with the threat of financial instability hanging over you -- and that's just what DOMA means to married gay and lesbian couples. Instead of protecting them, the law persecutes them because of who they love. Social Security spousal and survivor benefits are often critical to keeping older people out of poverty. These benefits should be available to all married couples--regardless of gender. We'll keep fighting until DOMA is gone for good," Nathanson said.

Hilary Rosen, managing director of SKDKnickerbocker and CNN commentator, noted the double standard of inequality.

"For nearly two decades our government has been treating gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens under DOMA, and it's clear from the polling and the shifting on the Hill that it's time for that to end. There was no way to justify writing discrimination into our laws in 1996, and no way to justify keeping it there in 2013," Rosen said.

Stacy Sanders, federal policy director at the Medicare Rights Center, said DOMA is unfair to taxpayers.

"Family ties and Medicare build the foundation of health security for our nation's seniors. DOMA undermines that security on both counts by treating married same-sex couples differently. With some of our most vulnerable citizens depending on Medicare after a lifetime of hard work and taxes paid, our government owes them better," Sanders said.

Attorney Thomas Sciacca said inequality also shows up after the death of a partner.

“Many couples rightly worry about federal recognition as they age, and they have cause: I have seen people die without a will and their partner of over 50 years not inherit a dime. I have been in court to get a temporary restraining order to prevent a burial of a deceased same-sex partner who always wanted to be cremated. Marriage equality is a fundamental human right,” Sciacca said.

Imani Woody, director and founder of Mary’s House for Older Adults, shared her personal story of discrimination against her and her wife.

"My wife and I face enough difficulty with discrimination -- getting it from our own federal government is too much to take. We are only asking for the same rights as all other married couples. Instead, I'm unable to get on my wife's health insurance, and we both face the possibility every day that if something happened to one of us, the other would have to fight for our rights as a married couple against a government that doesn't respect us," Woody said.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, could not attend the event, but issued this statement:

"There is no shortage of examples showing the ways the so-called Defense of Marriage Act harms families -- especially older couples who have paid into the system all their lives only to have it treat them as 'second-class' when they need it most. There's no excuse for the federal government's unfair treatment of these families, and Freedom to Marry will continue to work to overturn DOMA and give these families the justice they need and deserve," Wolfson said.

Because of DOMA, older gay and lesbian couples who are already dealing with the emotional and physical stresses of aging face additional financial hardships. For example:

* 21.2% of older New Yorkers live in poverty, according to a 2010 AARP Public Policy Institute report. In the District of Columbia, the number is even higher, with 31.5% of residents over 65 living in poverty.

* DOMA requires the value of the same-sex spouse’s health insurance to be treated as taxable income, costing same-sex couples on average $1,069 more per year than their married heterosexual counterparts with the same coverage, according to the Williams Institute.

* The lack of survivor benefits in Social Security can cost a legally married same-sex widow or widower up to $30,156 per year in lost income, according to Social Security Administration estimates.

* A 2009 report by the Williams Institute estimated that same-sex couples affected by the federal estate tax would lose an average of $1.1 million per couple in 2011 due to the inequity caused by DOMA.

More resources

Human Rights Campaign and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare: "Living Outside the Safety Net: LGBT Families and Social Security"

Social Security Benefits and Doma