By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court ruling that last month gave married gay couples access to the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples quickly produced a deluge of developments as federal agencies raced to comply with the ruling.
But in the three weeks since the court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples newly eligible for benefits are finding there are some limits to the momentum the ruling generated.
In some federal agencies, reaction to the ruling came promptly.
President Obama immediately directed the Department of Justice to work with other federal agencies to ensure the extension of spousal benefits to same-sex married couples was implemented “swiftly and smoothly” to comply with the high court decision.
The Department of Defense announced it would immediately provide the same benefits to all service members’ spouses.
Federal immigration officials urged gay and lesbian husbands and wives of U.S. citizens to petition for previously prohibited spousal immigration visas.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management invited newly eligible federal employees to apply, mid-year, for spousal medical, life and retirement benefits.
Bob Holloway, a Sonoma resident and a park ranger for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said he has received “a barrage” of email and memos instructing him and others in same-sex marriages how to apply for privileges now due them. He expected Tuesday to turn in the paperwork needed to extend coverage to his husband, Tom Laughlin.
“I’m so excited that, after 18 years of our marriage, that we’re finally having the opportunity to share my benefit plan with him,” Holloway said, referring to a commitment ceremony the two held nearly two decades ago, in advance of their 2008 wedding. “It can probably save us about $600 a month in what he’s paying for private health insurance.”
But two key federal agencies, the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration, are accepting claims but have yet to begin processing them. And it’s unclear when any actual benefits might be doled out.
Experts say part of the delay has to do with statutes that govern those agencies’ operations both in states, like California, that recognize same-sex marriages and in the 40 states where only marriages between a man and a woman are legally valid.
The Department of Defense, for instance, has said military personnel who were married in states that recognize same-sex marriage can receive spousal benefits where they live. They operate on a so-called “place of celebration” basis.
Others, including Veterans Affairs and the Social Security administration, embrace a “place of residence” rule, operating under regulations that deem a marriage valid if the veteran lives in a state that accepts same-sex marriage.
That distinction is critical for anyone who may wed and live in California, then move to a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage, said Linda Shear, a certified public accountant specializing in tax preparation and planning for people in domestic partnerships and same-sex marriages.
“There’s a lot of stuff we do know, and there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know,” Shear said. “And the biggest issue is going to be the residence-versus-celebration.”
Some have suggested an act of Congress may be required to amend the regulation in a way that would permit the VA to transition most readily to a post-DOMA era.
What’s clear is that neither agency has amended the instructions, forms and software its workers will need to process same-sex claims, and they can’t say when those preparations will be made.
“We just don’t have anything further to guide us or to provide anything more to people like you,” said Mary Parker, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration’s San Francisco Regional Public Affairs Office. “I can guarantee as soon as we do know more, we will tell the public. We know this is important to people’s lives.”
“There is still a lot of uncertainty in a lot of different areas,” said Santa Rosa attorney Naomi Metz, a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “… My official advice to people is apply for every single benefit that they should be able to apply for, and understand that we do not have clear direction on a lot of things yet.”
One-time Army nurse Astrid Ortega, 68, was nonetheless thrilled with the reception she and her wife and partner of 30 years received last week when they went to the Sonoma County Veterans Service Office for help in changing their veterans claims to take into account their 2008 marriage.
She and her wife, Gordie Weisgerber, 65, were the first same-sex couple to turn up at the office since the DOMA ruling was announced June 26. And they’ve got abundant reasons to embrace their newfound eligibility for spousal benefits, mostly financial.
But a key triumph for Ortega is the prospect of being buried one day with her wife in the veterans’ cemetery in Rhode Island, where she grew up.
Ortega and several friends — other nurses who served in Vietnam at the same time she did — have made a pact to seek burial in the Exeter memorial cemetery, some with their husbands. But until the U.S. Supreme Court determined that same-sex spouses must be granted the same federal benefits as spouses of the opposite gender, the best Ortega could do was arrange with her nieces to mix their aunties’ ashes, on the sly, so the Cloverdale couple could stay together in death.
Now, Ortega says gleefully of Weisgerber, “she can be buried in a veterans’ cemetery with her spouse: me!”
The couple also filed claims this week with the Social Security office in Santa Rosa so that Weisgerber, a retired retail buyer, could collect the same benefit that an opposite-sex spouse would.
Weisgerber, 65, said she’s unclear why it would be so difficult to process same-sex applications, though overall, she said she’s still amazed by the prospect of having her marriage acknowledged as legitimate and equal to a traditional one.
“It’s something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” she said.
“For people who are married and living in a state that recognizes their marriage, the questions are not so big,” said Cathy Sakimura, supervising attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “There really isn’t a question that all federal agencies must recognize same-sex spouses living in California as married.”
The Sonoma County Bar Association is offering a discussion of the recent Supreme Court ruling from 5 to 6 p.m. July 24. It is open to the public, at a cost of $55. More information is available at www.sonomacountybar.org.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com.