Claudia Bell, left and Tisha Garcia.

Claudia Bell applied for surviving spouse benefits, but her claim was held up for more than a year

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
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More than a year after she applied to receive surviving spouse benefits from Social Security, the federal government finally recognized Claudia Bell’s marriage, paid her back payments and awarded her regular monthly checks going forward.

Bell met Tisha Garcia in 2003 at a Guys and Dolls fundraiser for LifeWalk. Garcia was one of the founders of the group that is one of LifeWalk’s largest fundraising groups. Garcia later moved into Bell’s house where they shared living expenses and presented themselves as a married couple.

In order for Garcia to qualify for Bell’s insurance through her employer AT&T, Bell and Garcia went to Austin in 2005 to sign the state’s only city registry as “Legally Recognized Partners.” They then received a state-issued certificate recognizing their relationship.
In January 2014, Garcia was diagnosed with a very difficult to detect form of breast cancer. Despite Garcia’s regular mammograms, by the time doctors found the cancer, it had reached stage 4. The cancer was also “triple negative,” Bell said, meaning that it is a type that is hard to fight even with massive amounts chemotherapy.

Although Bell and Garcia wanted to get married legally, marriage equality had not yet come to Texas. They considered flying to another state, but Garcia’s cancer had already spread to her brain, making airplane travel impossible.

Then in the fall of 2014, a court ruled marriage legal in Oklahoma. Bell and Garcia drove up to Oklahoma, got their marriage license and were married in November.
Garcia died the next month.

When Bell retired in December 2017, she applied for Social Security — not her own, but her wife’s — under a benefit known as a surviving spousal benefit.

“I applied to receive the money my wife paid all of those years,” she said.

But in order to qualify for some spousal benefits, Social Security among them, a couple must be married at least nine months. Texas, however, has a very broad common-law marriage law: Two people who present themselves as married in Texas are, basically, married.
Community property in divorces and inheritance in many Texas cases have swung in favor of the common-law spouse.

So Bell claimed she and Garcia had been in a common-law marriage, and she used the “legally-recognized partner” certificate they had signed in 2005 to prove intent.

Bell learned from the Social Security office that she qualified for her wife’s benefits, which means that she was at least 60 years old and did not make more than $17,640 a year. She was told that her pension from AT&T was excluded as income and wouldn’t prevent her from receiving Garcia’s Social Security benefits.

Bell was also told the application for benefits would go to attorneys for the Social Security Administration.

But while the government didn’t exactly deny Bell’s claim, she said that one very pleasant Social Security employee told her she’d receive her benefits “when hell freezes over,” because the employee said, she had never seen the administration award benefits to a same-sex common-law spouse.

So, Bell spoke to attorneys at Lambda Legal. The local office referred her case to California, where they were working on Social Security litigation. They considered her case, but decided not to pursue it because while her common-law claim was legitimate, they said, it wouldn’t have national impact because common-law marriages are legal in only a few states.

Meanwhile, a number of other same-sex couples in Texas had their common-law marriages affirmed for purposes of pensions.

In Dallas, for the spouse of a retired city employee to receive pension benefits, the couple has to prove they were married on the date of retirement. At least two couples who receive pensions from the city of Dallas filed with the county to affirm their common-law status, which dated back to before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision.

But while Dallas recognized common-law spouses soon after marriage equality became law in Texas, Social Security dragged its feet.

Then suddenly in March 2019, Bell got a call from the local Social Security office. The employee had her answer a number of questions: Could she prove she was retired from AT&T?

Bell sent a letter from the company and her final pay stub, proving that she did indeed qualify, and finally last month received a lump sum payment dating back to her initial December 2017 application. And on April 1, the Social Security Administration deposited her first regular monthly payment in her account.

When she turns 70, Bell said she will apply for her own Social Security benefits, explaining that the difference between applying at her current age and waiting until age 70 is a difference of about $1,000 a month.

And Social Security is now recognizing same-sex spouses as married in Texas if they were together before the Obergefell decision, and the government is paying benefits as they would to opposite-sex couples who were able to get married before 2015.