Why a PA Court ruled that a lesbian widow may receive survivor’s benefits

a3fba0db72aec4dda154d789339d1cbb.570.0.0A Pennsylvania-based federal court ruled yesterday that a lesbian widow is entitled to her former spouse’s work benefits based on both Illinois’ civil union law and Canadian same-sex marriage laws—and may have benefits for same-sex couples in many U.S. states.

The case stemmed from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and cited the recent Defense of Marriage Act decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Essentially, the lawsuit, known as O’Connor v. Tobits, came about after Sarah Ellyn Farley—who was both in an Illinois civil union with Jean Tobits and had married her in Canada in 2006—died of cancer in 2010. Tobits then got involved in a fight over Farley’s benefits paid out to her by her former employer, the Cozen O’Connor lawfirm, with Farley’s parents, who apparently didn’t recognize their daughter’s marriage. Specifically, they requested payment of the Pre-Retirement Survivor Annuity available from O’Connor’s profit-sharing plan. The court ruled the benefits are entitled to Tobits.

This is significant. Not only is it a win for the spouse, but the court noted it interpreted the DOMA decision in such a way that someone who is not legally married or living in a marriage equality state can still be a “spouse.”

As stated in the final decision:

Windsor makes clear that where a state has recognized a marriage as valid, the United States Constitution requires that the federal laws and regulations of this country acknowledge that marriage. In light of that, this Court finds that Ms. Tobits is Ms. Farley’s ‘Spouse’ pursuant to the terms of the Plan.”

This is different from the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the law. The administration has a more conservative stance, which does not include civil unions or domestic partnerships as part of the decision.

“The court is saying that the couple with a marriage from Canada residing in Illinois should be treated like spouses, but this does lead to the potential conclusion that those in civil unions in general should be treated like spouses,” Doug NeJaime, a gay law professor at the University of California, Irvine told the Washington Blade.

Pennsylvania, of course, does not currently recognize marriage equality or civil unions. State Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) has introduced a civil union bill to the state Legislature, though it’s yet to go anywhere. Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) has introduced a marriage equality bill to the state Senate, and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Steve McCarter (D-Montgomery) introduced one to the House.

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

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