- After 20+ years together, Anthony Gonzales and his late husband Mark Johnson were only legally married for six months before Johnson’s death.
- Gonzales was denied his survivor benefits, Social Security benefits typically given after a spouse dies.
- Seven years later, Gonzales finally received $1,700 a month in survivor benefits, plus $90,000 in backpay.
Anthony Gonzales and Mark Johnson were married at the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, alongside more than 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 county clerks in New Mexico began 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 tells Insider, “Mark just had chemo a week or two before” — he had rectal cancer — “so it was hard for him. The chemo took a lot out of him physically. It left him weak, but he was determined.”
While the couple had a ceremony in the late ’90s, Johnson was concerned about what might happen to their assets if he died without being legally married to Gonzales. Gonzales says they “shared everything,” adding, “we had a joint checking account that paid for our daily expenses. We each put in the same amount every month. That account paid for our mortgage, utilities, gym membership, car expenses.”
Johnson died on February 19, 2014, six months after he legally married Gonzales at the county clerk’s office.
Gonzales applied for survivor benefits in 2015 but was denied
When he turned 60 in 2015, one year after Mark’s death, Gonzales was let go from his job. He applied for survivor benefits, Social Security benefits that widows and widowers get when their spouse dies. Survivor benefits are typically used to pay bills that the couple once shared and planned for during their retirement, documented by a marriage license, shared loans, or a child’s birth certificate.
Gonzales was denied survivor benefits three weeks after he sent his application. He says, “I got a letter saying, ‘Sorry, but you weren’t married the required nine months.’ And I was like, ‘Well, how could we fulfill that requirement when we could not get married?”
Gonzales decided, “I’m gonna fight this. What do I have to lose?” With the help of his neighbor, lawyer Mia Touchet, he exhausted all of the Social Security appeals processes until 2018. The hearing officers at the Social Security office told him repeatedly that fair and equitable change could only come from Congress, and that there was nothing they could do for him.
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 say the trial — which took place in Arizona — took an emotional toll on him. At the time, he was also caring for his mother, who lived to be 101, while grieving Johnson’s death.
He tells Insider, “I’ve told my story so many times, and every time, I start crying. Even though it’s already been eight years since Mark passed away. But it’s still raw. I still miss that guy.”
Gonzales now receives $1,700 a month in survivor benefits, and $90,000 in backpay
In May 2021, the US District Court of Arizona ruled in favor of Ely and other same-sex couples who had been denied survivor benefits. According to records reviewed by Insider, Gonzales started receiving $1,700 a month in survivor benefits starting May 2021, along with $90,000 in backpay for the years he was denied benefits.
Before he received the funds from the SSA, Gonzales says he was only receiving $1,000 a month of his own Social Security benefits, which he had to draw from earlier than expected because he was close to exhausting his 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 for emergencies, he says, “It’s a great relief, you know. I’m not constantly worried about money now.”
There are resources for LGBTQ+ seniors who need survivor benefits
If you or your LGBTQ+ senior loved one have had trouble accessing survivor benefits, visit your local Social Security office and mention either the Ely v. Saul case, or the twin case Thornton v. Saul.
In lieu of a traditional marriage license that proves you’ve been married for nine months or longer, you may need to bring the following documents:
- Your spouse’s death certificate
- 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
The Social Security Administration has assigned the message codes EM-21007 SEN REV, code 529 or EM-20046 SEN REV 2 to SSA appeal cases that involve LGBTQ+ individuals. Mention those codes for faster service at the Social Security field offices.