Effective May 19th, 2015 it is possible for some people to be eligible for the same Social Security benefits as spouses, even though they are/were not legally married. A recent update to the Social Security operations manual (called the POMS or Program Operations Manual System) declares that the Social Security system will consider people as “married” for purposes of determining spousal benefits if the worker (who the SS system calls the NH or Number Holder) resides in a state where that state has established non-marital relationships (like civil unions, domestic partnerships or reciprocal beneficiary relationships) and those legal relationships allow the surviving person to inherit the personal property of the deceased person. This sounds like a lot of legalese, so let me try to clarify.
State laws determine what happens to a person’s personal property when they die without a will. When a person dies without a will they are described as “intestate”. Each state decides what happens this property, and in almost all cases the default recipient of these assets is the surviving spouse of a legal marriage. Starting back in the year 2000 some states decided to create alternative legal relationships, like domestic partnerships or civil unions, and some states grant the partners of these agreements the same inheritance rights as spouses. So if one of the partners in this agreement were to pass away the surviving partner would inherit the personal property as if they were the spouse of the deceased.
If we fast forward to April of 2015 we find that the SS rules have been updated to offer spousal benefits to the partners in the relationships described above. The core qualifier is that the two people reside in a state that provides for these relationships, those relationships provide for inheritance rights as if the two were married and the two people legally entered into one of these relationships long enough ago to qualify for the time restriction on spousal benefits. So this “new” benefit does not apply in every state. You can see a table with the list of states that offer these non-marital legal relationships and if the form of those relationships meets the SS restrictions on offering spousal benefits if you click here.
For example, Colorado offered two types of these relationships in the past. Starting on July 1, 2009 Colorado offered “Designated Beneficiary” relationships and since May 1, 2013 they have offered “Civil Unions”. Because of the way Colorado chose to define these relationships they do qualify the partners to SS spousal benefits unless in the Designated Beneficiary agreement in heritance rights were expressly excluded.
Bottom line to all this is that people in non-marital relationships who previously were NOT eligible to collect spousal or survivor benefits MIGHT now be able to do exactly that. If you are/were in one of these relationships it is definitely worth looking into this new rule change. The full rule change can be found here in POMS GN 00210.004 (the entry in the SS operations manual).