Rhode Island

GLAD sues SSA for denying survivor benefits to disabled R.I. widow

Patricia Baker, 54, right, a Rhode Island corrections officer, testifies in favor of gay marriage rights before a Senate committee at the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence, R.I. Thursday, March 10, 2011 as her wife, Deborah Tevyaw, weeps at left. Elise Amendola, AP

The legal advocacy group GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) has filed suit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) in U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, charging SSA with wrongfully denying survivor benefits to 56-year-old Deborah Tevyaw after the death of her wife, Patricia Baker.

Patricia Baker, 54, right, a Rhode Island corrections officer, testifies in favor of gay marriage rights before a Senate committee at the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence, R.I. Thursday, March 10, 2011 as her wife, Deborah Tevyaw, weeps at left.Elise Amendola, AP

Patricia Baker, 54, right, a Rhode Island corrections officer, testifies in favor of gay marriage rights before a Senate committee at the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence, R.I. Thursday, March 10, 2011 as her wife, Deborah Tevyaw, weeps at left.

Tevyaw married Baker, a career Rhode Island corrections officer, in Massachusetts in 2005. Baker was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and died in August 2011.

Baker’s final months were spent lobbying for marriage equality in Rhode Island, and trying to ensure Deb’s financial security. But SSA has repeatedly denied survivor benefits to Tevyaw, who as a result has been living on virtually no income for more than three years.

Social Security initially refused in 2012 to provide Deb disabled widow’s benefits and a lump sum death payment, citing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While Deb appealed this denial, she was living on a disability income of $723 a month. She was forced to sell her home of 38 years, leaving her dependent on friends and family.

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After Section 3 of DOMA was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013, SSA continued to deny Deb’s appeal, claiming that the state of Rhode Island would not have recognized Deb and Pat’s marriage at the time of Pat’s death.

“More than a year after the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, Social Security’s misguided and mistaken application of the law is causing serious harm and distress to people like Deb,” said Janson Wu, GLAD Senior Staff Attorney.

“I’ve lost my wife and my best friend, and Social Security has made that so much worse by telling me that in their eyes, I was not Pat’s wife. Not only is that hurtful and insulting, it has meant that I am living in poverty. I am not looking for a handout; this is money that Pat earned through hard work.” said Tevyaw

The complaint is here.

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