The widow of a woman who pushed to legalize gay marriage in Rhode Island before she died of cancer will be entitled to her Social Security benefits after a yearslong fight to get them, an advocacy group said Thursday.
Deborah Tevyaw received more than $30,000 in back benefits on Monday, according to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Her wife, Patricia Baker, died in 2011. They married in 2005 in Massachusetts but lived in Rhode Island.
"Nothing can bring back my wife and my best friend, but at least now Pat can rest in peace and I will be protected by the same safety net that is there for all other widows and widowers," Tevyaw said in a statement.
Baker was a correctional officer and was dying of lung cancer when she testified at a legislative hearing in March 2011 that she worried about Tevyaw's well-being after she died.
"I worked all my life for those benefits," Baker told lawmakers while occasionally breathing from an oxygen tank. "We own a house. We pay taxes. But they told me my Social Security benefits would go back into the system when I die. How is she going to keep the house?"
Baker died five months later, and Tevyaw was forced to sell their Johnston home because she was living on a disability income of $723 a month, GLAD said.
The Social Security Administration refused to pay disabled widow benefits and a lump sum death payment because gay marriage was not legal in Rhode Island at the time Baker died, GLAD spokesman Bruce Bell said. Gay marriage did not become legal in Rhode Island until last year.
Tevyaw appealed and also filed a lawsuit in federal court. GLAD says the Social Security Administration has agreed to recognize marriages in Rhode Island since Feb. 20, 2007. That's the date of an advisory opinion issued by then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch that said Rhode Island should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Bell said that while the federal government has granted more benefits to same-sex couples, many surviving spouses or children are still being denied benefits because the Social Security Administration is using the wrong date for when same-sex marriages were recognized in individual states.