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It’s Time to Eliminate the Marriage Penalty for Disabled Adults

Published Friday, Jan. 13th, 2023


Does a disabled person lose their benefits if they get married? Probably, and that needs to change. It’s time to ensure marriage equality for disabled adults.

 


Did you know that millions of disabled adults can lose their disability benefits just by getting married? 

 

If this is the first your hearing of it, you’re not alone. Despite repeated attempts to raise awareness around the (many) inequalities facing the disability community, it’s not making as many headlines as it should.

 

But it’s true: For too many disabled adults, getting married can lead to a serious ‘marriage penalty,’ such as the loss of some or all of their monthly Social Security stipend, and the loss of essential healthcare and insurance through Medicaid and Medicare.

 

The people hardest hit by these penalties are often those who need these benefits the most: adults on Social Security Disability (SSDI) as a Disabled Adult Child (DAC). DAC participants have a qualifying disability before the age of 22, and are unable to sustain “substantial gainful activity,” which means they’re not able to earn a standard minimum income due to significant disability. (via SSA, How You Qualify

 

If a DAC recipient marries someone who’s non-disabled, they’re likely to lose everything, even though a loss or reduction of income and healthcare might be life-threatening. It’s a hard reality that forces many to remain unmarried despite their desire to wed. 

 

 

Happy newlyweds embrace on the wedding day

If a DAC recipient marries a non-disabled partner, they lose their disability benefits. This includes monthly income and access to live-sustaining healthcare.

 

 

Recipients of SSI benefits (Supplemental Security Income) and other SSA supplemental income are also at risk of major marriage penalties. These recipients include both older adults (age 65 or older) and disabled adults with limited incomes, who rely on supplemental income and healthcare to lead happy and independent lives. (via DREDF)

 

When SSI recipients marry someone with an average or above-average income or access to other resources, they’re likely to lose some or all of their benefits – even when they marry another SSI recipient.

 

Currently, there are an estimated 1.1 million DAC recipients (according to Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, DREDF), and about 8.1 million recipients of federal SSI benefits (according to the SSA). And the numbers for each group go up considerably every year, demonstrating a continued need for compassion, action, and support. 

 

Some of these couples choose to hold commitment ceremonies instead of weddings as a way to celebrate their union with friends and family without losing their benefits, or involuntarily shifting financial responsibility for their care onto their partner.

 

A beautiful example of this was recently published in The New York Times: A ceremonial (not legal) service between Barbara Torasso and her partner Bradley Carbone, who was paralyzed a few months into their relationship in a severe snowboarding accident. 

 

 

Torasso Carbone  Photo by Natalie Keyssar New-York-Times

The happy couple, Ms. Torasso and Mr. Carbone. 
Photo by Natalie Keyssar for
The New York Times

 

 

 

So, how can we achieve marriage equality for disabled adults? 

 

We get rid of these discriminatory penalties and barriers to marriage! 

 

President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act this past December, enshrining equal marriage rights for same-sex and interracial couples in federal law. It was a big step for protecting marriage equality! 

 

Now, it’s time to ensure the same access to marriage for disabled adults. A few lawmakers are already stepping up to make the necessary changes, but the disability community needs everyone’s support.  

 

Last year, California Representative Jimmy Panetta introduced H.R. 6405, a federal bill called the “Marriage Equality for Disabled Adults Act." The bill was inspired in part by a letter sent to Panetta's office from California resident Lori Long, who learned she couldn't marry her fiance, Mark Contreras, without losing her benefits. The bill would accomplish four things: 

 

  • Eliminate the requirement that a DAC beneficiary be unmarried.
  • Eliminate the rule that removes DAC benefits should a beneficiary marry.
  • Change Social Security’s rules about common law marriages.
  • Ensure that, in a marriage between a DAC beneficiary and any other person, both spouses may continue to receive SSI and Medicaid as if they were unmarried.

 

We spoke in favor of the bill at the time – and still do:  

 

 

 

close up view of two wives holding hands

The next step in marriage equality?

Equal marriage rights for disabled people and their partners.

 

 

Unfortunately, no decision has yet been reached on H.R. 6405, and disabled adults and their families are still waiting for effective change. 

 

A similar measure titled ‘Social Security Disability Insurance: disabled adult child benefit,’ was adopted last year in California. This resolution, SRJ-8, denounces “the inequality and discriminatory treatment of adults receiving DAC benefits in reference to their termination of benefits upon marriage,” and urges “the President and Congress of the United States to amend Section 402(d)(1) of Title 42 of the United State Codes and any other necessary statutes to allow recipients of DAC benefits to continue to receive those benefits upon marriage.” 

 

In other recent efforts to effect change, the National Center on Advancing Person-Centered Practices and Systems (NCAPPS) held a webinar addressing the issue last month, as part of an initiative by the government's Administration for Community Living (ACL). The webinar, titled ‘Love and Disability Exploring Person-Centered Supports and the Marriage Penalty’ included experts who advocate for Autistic adults and disability law, and disabled adults impacted by the marriage penalty. 

 

Thankfully, awareness is increasing around marriage inequality for disabled adults. Recent articles in Forbes, Huffpost, The New York Times, The Conversation, and NPR, among others, have spoken out in the past year in favor of abolishing the marriage penalty. 

 

Marriage is a basic human right, and it’s time to ensure equal access to marriage for disabled adults. 

 

American Marriage Ministries is a proud advocate for marriage equality. Our church is founded on the belief that all people have the right to get married and perform marriage, and we’ll never stop speaking up!

 

Learn more about the services AMM provides (including free online ordination, training, and advocacy) and what we believe, here. 

 

 

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Marriage Equality for Older Adults Matters

AMM Minister and professional Officiant Jody Serey performs wedding ceremonies, vow renewals, and other ceremonies year-round in sunny Arizona with her company, Spirit and Light.

Jody tells us that many of the couples who contact her are seniors who want to get married but can’t – because they can’t afford to lose their benefits or essential healthcare access. Instead, these couples celebrate their love with commitment ceremonies, which don’t involve any paperwork and aren’t legally binding. 

Commitment ceremonies are deeply meaningful and full of love, but they don’t offer the traditional legal benefits of marriage. Removing the potential marriage penalties faced by older adults and other SSI recipients ensures marriage equality for all people.

♡ Simple Commitment Ceremony Script
 

Ordained Minister and professional Officiant Jody Serey performs a wedding ceremony for two smiling people, outdoors at Virginia's House in Arizona

Above: Officiant Jody performs a marriage ceremony at a historic wedding venue in Glendale, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Virginia’s House. 

 

Officiant Jody Serey is an AMM Guest Contributor. Read her original ceremony scripts here: Articles by Jody Serey

 

 

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About American Marriage Ministries


We are a non-profit, interfaith and non-denominational constitutional church and federally recognized 501(c)3 Public Charitable Organization. AMM provides free ordination, advocacy, and training for our ministers to ensure that all people have the right to get married and to perform marriage. To date, we have ordained over 1,030,097 ministers who have officiated weddings all across the United States.

 

Learn more about AMM here. 

 

AMM logo

 


 

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Close up photo on two people forming a heart shape with their hands

Asked to officiate a wedding for an autistic friend or family member? Planning a wedding ceremony for an autistic couple for the first time? Read the full article here. 

 


 


Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves digging into the history and magic of ritual, exploring the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She’s an advocate for marriage equality and individuality. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys easy hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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