Anthony Gonzales won $90,000 in retroactive Social Security benefits
- After more than 20 years together, Anthony Gonzales and her late husband Mark Johnson were only legally married six months before Johnson died.
- Gonzales was denied his survivor benefits, Social Security benefits usually granted after the death of a spouse.
- Seven years later, Gonzales finally received $1,700 a month in survivor benefits, plus $90,000 in arrears.
Anthony Gonzales and Mark Johnson were married at the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, alongside over 100 other LGBTQ+ couples, on August 27, 2013.
Same-sex marriage was legalized statewide in New Mexico in December 2013—and was legalized nationwide on June 26, 2015, by the Supreme Court—however, some local clerks in New Mexico have begun issuing marriage licenses to LGBTQ+ couples as early as August 2013, arguing that New Mexico’s definition of marriage made no mention of sex or gender.
Gonzales told Insider, “Mark had just had chemo a week or two before” – he had rectal cancer – “so it was tough for him. The chemo took a lot out of him physically. It left him weak. , but he was determined.”
As the couple had a ceremony in the late 90s, Johnson worried about what might happen to their estates if he died without being legally married to Gonzales. Gonzales says they “shared everything,” adding, “We had a common checking account that paid for our daily expenses. We each pay the same amount each month.
Johnson died on February 19, 2014, six months after legally marrying Gonzales at the county clerk’s office.
Gonzales applied for survivor benefits in 2015, but was denied
When he turned 60 in 2015, a year after Mark’s death, Gonzales was fired from his job. He asked for survivor benefits, social security benefits that widows and widowers receive when their spouse dies. Survivor benefits are typically used to pay bills the couple have shared and planned for in retirement, documented by a marriage license, shared loans, or a child’s birth certificate.
Gonzales was denied survivor benefits three weeks after submitting his application. He says: “I got a letter saying, ‘Sorry, but you weren’t married for the required nine months.’ And I was like, ‘Well, how could we meet this requirement when we couldn’t get married?’
Gonzales decided, “I’m going to fight this. What do I have to lose?” With the help of his neighbor, attorney Mia Touchet, he exhausted all Social Security appeals through 2018. Hearing officers at the Social Security office repeatedly told him that ‘just and fair change could only come from Congress, and that there was nothing they could do about it.
Lambda Legal took the case to court – and won
LGBTQ+ civil rights organization Lambda Legal heard about Gonzales’ efforts and asked him to testify in a class action lawsuit, Ely v. Saul, named after Michael Ely, another widower who was denied SSA survivor benefits.
While he was happy to receive support from Lambda Legal for his survivor benefits, Gonzales said the trial — which took place in Arizona — had an emotional impact on him. At the time, he was also caring for his mother, who lived to be 101, while mourning Johnson’s death.
He told Insider, “I’ve told my story so many times, and every time I start to cry. Even though it’s already been eight years since Mark died. But it’s still believed. This guy told me. still missing.”
Gonzales now receives $1,700 a month in survivor benefits and $90,000 in arrears
In May 2021, the U.S. District Court in Arizona ruled in favor of Ely and other same-sex couples who had been denied survivor benefits. According to records reviewed by Insider, Gonzales began receiving $1,700 a month in survivor benefits starting in May 2021, as well as $90,000 in back pay for the years he was denied benefits.
Before receiving the SSA funds, Gonzales says he was only getting $1,000 a month from his own Social Security benefits, which he had to withdraw earlier than expected because he was about to run out of money. 401(k). He says, “At one point I had $15,000 in credit card debt.”
Now that he has a lump sum of money to fall back on in case of an emergency, he says, “It’s a big relief, you know. I’m not constantly worried about money anymore.
There are resources for LGBTQ+ seniors who need survivor benefits
If you or your LGBTQ+ loved one has had difficulty accessing survivor benefits, go to your local Social Security office and mention either Ely v. Saul, or the twin case of Thornton v. Saul.
Instead of a traditional marriage license proving you’ve been married for nine months or more, you may need to bring the following documents:
- Death certificate of your spouse
- Photos or documents from your commitment ceremony
- Shared financial documents, such as a mortgage, title, lease, or joint bank account statements
- If you have children, your children’s birth certificate or adoption papers, preferably with both of you listed as the child’s legal parents
Social Security Administration assigned message codes EM-21007 SEN REV, code 529 Where EM-20046 SEN REV 2 SSA appeal cases involving LGBTQ+ people. Mention these codes for faster service at Social Security field offices.