Social Security Retirement and Survivor Benefits – Myths and Realities

70% of the country relies upon social security for a major source of income in retirement.  There are Social security lifetime benefits — like retirement benefits– and social security survivor benefits usually when one loses a spouse.

Social security Retirement income is a plan that working people contribute to by  paying social security tax during their lifetime  to then access in retirement as income. It is voluntary only in the sense that if you don’t work you don’t pay.  Because the plan was started in the 30’s it was designed with married couples in mind in which one was the bread winner (usually he) and the other was at home with the children (usually she).  When the couple got to retirement age (currently 62 or older based on date of birth) both spouses were able to access the plan.  The working spouse would get 100% of the benefits based on how much he had paid into the system.  His spouse at her retirement age was then able to access her benefit, if she had worked and contributed, or one- half of her spouse’s , whichever was greater.  If her spouse predeceased her, then she had the option to continue taking her benefit or the full amount of her spouse’s whichever was greater. Also ex spouses are able to access these benefits if there marriage is considered a long term marriage at divorce- usually 10 years or greater and it is not negotiated otherwise.

For same sex couples this is mostly new information as there has not been access to Social Security before July 2013.  And not having fit into the system, there are some complexities that need to be understood.  To be eligible for social security survivor benefits, you must be married at least nine months.  We are currently waiting for Social Security to issue guidance on whether Registered Domestic Partners (RDPs) may in fact be eligible for survivor benefits based upon the fact that a Registered Domestic Partner is an intestate heir, or rather next of kin under state law. As of now, we know of no survivor benefits paid out to a surviving RDP.  If you have lost a spouse or an RDP in the last few years, you should go to the Social Security office and apply for survivor benefits immediately.

If you were already receiving survivor benefits or retirement benefits as a result of a previous opposite sex marriage and you remarry or are married to your same sex spouse you will lose those benefits as remarriage terminates such benefits.  Interestingly enough, for persons over the age of 62 who would otherwise lose their social security benefits by remarrying, they can under state law become RDPs and have the same rights and responsibilities as married persons but only for state purposes and not for federal.  If you are receiving benefits that should be terminated because you are married to someone else now, you should contact the social security office immediately as well, and be prepared to pay back any benefit that you have received since July 2013.

If you have not started taking social security but plan to in the near future, you should consult your financial advisor about filing and suspending or go to This allows you to take one half of your spouse’s benefit while you delay taking until a later time as your monthly benefit increases dramatically if you wait.  Age 70 is the longest you would benefit from waiting, but to the extent that one half of your spouse’s monthly benefit is as much or all you need for now, i.e. you are still working etc., this is a great way to maximize your social security benefits.

Can Intergenerational Connection Battle Ageism Within the LGBT Community?

By Johnston, Kinney & Zulaica LLP Attorney, Daniel Redman

Ageism is hurtful to all older people, but it can be particularly devastating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders. Not only do LGBT elders face ageism in the community at large, but they face marginalization within the LGBT community as well.

They are more likely to be cut off from families of origin, less likely to have children and far more likely than their straight peers to depend on a “family of choice” (a network of friends and lovers) rather than a biological family for care and support. While these families are just as caring and loving as biological families, caregiving can become difficult as members of a family of choice face disability and medical issues that come with aging at the same time as care-receivers.

However, a new report, Celebrating Intergenerational Diversity Among LGBT People  by London’s International Longevity Centre (ILC), shows that creative efforts to bring LGBT youth and elders together can play a critical role in combatting the destructive impact of social isolation and ageism on LGBT elders. These efforts may help forge enduring new bonds that will dramatically improve the situation of LGBT elders and give LGBT youth a stronger sense of their community and history.

Stateside Intergenerational LGBT Programs

((( outLoud )))
An LGBT oral history project that matches elders with youth to interview each other about their lives. Noah Miller, outLoud Radio’s founder, says, “When we bring LGBTQ youth and elders face-to-face, it’s so obvious: both groups have an immense hunger for the feeling of community that comes from sharing stories. … At the same time, by being exposed to people of a different generation, they start to think of themselves as part of history.”

A San Francisco group that brings together LGBT youth and elders and uses video, performance, sculpture and painting to create a literary anthology and website, and to put on a performance series. When founder Frank Pietronigro entered middle age, he began to feel marginalized within the community. In a 2004 literary journal, he wrote, “My community reacts to me differently, now that I have gone bald and gray. I sometimes feel betrayed … and cannot help but think that such unintentional rejection is a learned behavior that we can change.”

The HIV Story Project
Academy Award–nominated producer Marc Smolowitz created this publicly accessible video booth where LGBT youth can record questions about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and older adults can film responses.

Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools
Robyn Bykofsky heads Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools, in which LGBT youth and elders participate in an intensive 12-week course to learn how to make their own films. Through a partnership with the internationally acclaimed Frameline Film Festival, their films are screened for the public.

Ageism within the LGBT Community

Even within the LGBT community, elders can often feel disconnected and invisible. “Creating opportunities for LGBT individuals to communicate across generations is crucial to breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions that can leave some LGBT elders isolated from the larger LGBT community,” says professor Nancy Knauer of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and author of Gay and Lesbian Elders: History, Law, and Identity Politics in the United States (Ashgate, 2011). “Integrating elders into the broader LGBT community is an important first step to breaking down these barriers to successful aging.”

There are some opportunities for intergenerational interaction in the LGBT community through the many LGBT churches and religious organizations, LGBT musical groups and political advocacy organizations. But, as researchers Glenda M. Russell and Janis S. Bohan described in their 2005 article, “

The Gay Generation Gap: Communicating Across the LGBT Generation Divide,” many LGBT social activities tend to be age-segregated, and interactions that cross generations “must be arranged with the explicit intent of creating cross-generational interaction.”

Programs Connect Generations

The Longevity Centre report studied three intergenerational LGBT programs conducted between 2010 and 2011 and documented their success. The LGBT Centre in Leicester, U.K.—an industrial, urban community not known as an LGBT hub—trained youth to gather oral histories, and sent them into the community to interview elders.

According to the report, both the interviewers and interviewees appreciated the chance to tell their town’s stories. Their work led not only to the creation of a resource for historians, but also to an exhibit on LGBT history in the city.

The report also included a project in Camden—a part of North London on the edge of Soho that’s known for its extensive and active LGBT community—where youth and elders participated in workshops, challenging stereotypes and creating art in a variety of forms. One researcher commented that this arts project worked well because it provided a more comfortable environment for “people to reveal private emotions and thoughts in a less public way.”

The final program analyzed in the report was in Stockport, a struggling industrial town neighboring the strong LGBT community of Manchester. There, youth and elders joined forces in an innovative project to educate local service providers about the needs of the LGBT community. Participants learned how to perform a needs assessment, write and collect data through questionnaires, conduct a focus group and organize meetings between providers and clients. This ultimately led to the creation of an “LGBT toolkit” for service providers to help them provide culturally competent care.

Strategies to Ensure Success

Merely gathering younger and older LGBT people together doesn’t necessarily create a productive program. The report advises several ways to ensure everyone feels welcome: maintain roughly equal numbers of youth and elders; reach out to more isolated elders; encourage consistent attendance to help build camaraderie and trust; and match youth and elders with similar interests. These strategies aim to bring young and old together in authentic and meaningful ways.

The ILC report documented the three U.K. projects’ many positive results: the programs reduced age stereotypes, promoted confidence among youth and elders, introduced LGBT youth to positive older-age role models, raised awareness of LGBT history, built practical skills and gave young and old the opportunity to better understand each other’s lives and stories. The report reflects empirically what we’ve seen anecdotally in the Bay Area (see sidebar, below left)—that intergenerational work in the LGBT community has a powerfully positive effect on both youth and elders.

Daniel Redman was an attorney in the Elder Law Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), San Francisco.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March/April, 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

To access the original article, please visit the ASA’s website here.

Creating a Safe Harbor for African American LGBT Elders

By Johnston, Kinney & Zulaica LLP Attorney, Daniel Redman, and Imani Woody

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders come from every community, and providing inclusive services for people in this population requires taking into account their race, class, gender, disability, religion and national origin.

In October 2011, Imani Woody (this article’s co-author) completed a study called Lift Every Voice that explored the unique experiences of African American lesbian and gay male elders. The study concluded that for this segment of the LGBT community, finding inclusive and welcoming environments can be very difficult.

African American LGBT people coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to the violence and terror surrounding the Jim Crow laws and societal backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, confronted discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or both. Some experienced anti-LGBT discrimination from within the black community. One participant in Woody’s study related his experiences with the Black Panther movement: “One of my issues being African American and [being gender non-conforming] was really when I came out in college in the late ’60s at the height of the Black Power Movement. I was distinctly told by a couple of black organizations at the time, ‘we don’t want your kind here’ … I knew exactly what they meant.”

Anti-LGBT sentiment was not universal, however. In a 1970 speech, Black Panthers founder Huey Newton rejected homophobia, stating, “The women’s liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends, they are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as possible.”

Discrimination in Accessing Services

Racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia continue to manifest in violence and discrimination against LGBT African Americans. One challenge for African American LGBT elders is finding a safe place to live or spend their days. Elder-focused sites can feel unwelcoming to LGBT people, while at the same time, LGBT community centers or events can feel unwelcoming to elders or African Americans. But some African American community settings (e.g., churches) can be exclusive of LGBT people, too. One study participant said: “You hurt … because you are black and gay—you can’t separate the two.”

African American LGBT elders are frequently cautious about where they seek services because they want to avoid discrimination. As one study participant said, “[It is important to me to] find out who else, as an African American, same-gender-loving person, has used the services,” before using a service provider, or attending a meeting or event.

Many black LGBT elders also experience barriers in facilities such as nursing homes. “It’s difficult enough to be a black gay man in a big city. I can’t imagine a smaller town than a nursing home,” said one 65-year-old African American gay man in a 2009 Philadelphia Gay News article, “LGBT Seniors: Out of the Closet, and Nowhere to Go.”

Creating Welcoming Spaces

There are broad, systemic actions organizations can take to indicate that they welcome everyone. One is to prioritize involvement with organizations and activists serving the particular interests of the African American LGBT community. Organizing in this community is not new: Us Helping Us, People Into Living ( was founded in 1985 to respond to the AIDS crisis in the Washington, D.C., African American community. Griot Circle ( in New York City has served African American LGBT elders since 1996.

“First impressions count, and it’s important that the person feels welcome and accepted the moment they walk though the agency’s door, particularly if they are marginalized or stigmatized,” says Dr. Ron Simmons, president and CEO of Us Helping Us.

Aside from partnering with African American LGBT organizations, aging service providers can post notices and photos reflecting the diversity of the LGBT community on community bulletin boards, prioritize recruiting a diverse board of directors and managers, and ensure prominence of racially and age-diverse LGBT people in publications, marketing and program materials. It’s also important to pay attention to vocabulary. In the same way that many LGBT elders do not identify with the word “queer,” some African American LGBT elders do not identify with the terms “gay” and “lesbian.” Instead, some prefer the terms “same-gender loving,” “woman who loves women” or “man who loves men.”

It is also vital to make LGBT programs and community venues inclusive to all communities of faith. In a 2007 study, Legacy Denied: African American Gay Men, AIDS, and the Black Church, R. J. Miller found that 80 percent of gay black men who responded identified strongly with a faith tradition, and many were currently or had been involved in a church or religious institution.

Many have also faced rejection from such institutions. One participant said, “It was one of the deepest hurts I have had in my life, to be put out of my church that I have put so much love and energy [into].”

Despite this mixed history, “[v]iewing religion as an enemy … is not only an offensive stereotype; it is an ineffective strategy. There are many articulate progressive people of faith who know how to dismantle harmful and divisive religious strategies by sharing their vision of the equality of all citizens,” wrote Rev. Roland Stringfellow, director of Ministerial Outreach at the Berkeley, Calif.–based Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Sexuality, Pacific School of Religion, in The Huffington Post article, “A Clear Vision: Developing a Religious Strategy for Equality.”

Gaining Confidence, Strength—and Safety

Many African American LGBT elders have navigated discrimination and rejection for most of their lives—but for some this has given them a greater sense of confidence and “crisis competence” than their non-LGBT or non-African American peers. In a 2009 study, Ageism with Heterosexism: Selfperceptions, Identity and Psychological Health in Older Gay and Lesbian Adults, Meisner and Hynie reported that “successful transition to one stigmatized status—of being a lesbian—may contribute to future successful transition to another stigmatized status—of being old.” My co-author’s study findings concur, showing that “challenges based on racial or gender oppression made it easier to deal with oppression based on age.”

Creating welcoming services for LGBT elders—building that safe harbor for all the elders in the community—must be a top priority for providers. By being mindful of the intersecting effects of racism, homophobia and transphobia, we can work toward a day when all LGBT elders receive comprehensive services in safe, inclusive environments

Daniel Redman, Esq., was an attorney in the Elder Law Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco, Calif.

Imani Woody, Ph.D., is chair of SAGE Metro DC and an LGBT and aging consultant for IWF Associates, LLC, in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the July/August 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at the online store.