Military Survivor Benefits for Same-Sex Spouse

In Copper-Harris v. United States, Case No. 2:12-00887 (Aug. 29, 2013), the Central District of California District Court recently ruled that the military could not deny survivor benefits to a same-sex spouse.  This case is interesting because it brings up a very interesting conflict of laws.

California recognizes same-sex marriages and recently the Supreme Court reversed DOMA.  You can see my prior post discussing the DOMA decision here.

Meanwhile, the Veteran’s Benefits statute, Title 38, defines a survivor spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who was the spouse of a veteran.” 38 U.S.C. 101(3).

The federal District Court in California, without referencing DOMA or what would be the appropriate standard of review, sided with the same-sex surviving spouse.  Using a rational basis review, the military would have to show that their action was rationally related to the purpose of the statute.  The questions can be summed up as follows:

  1. Is the survivor benefit exclusion of same-sex spouses rationally related to the goal of gender equality and expansion of the availability of veteran’s benefits?
  2. Is the survivor benefit exclusion of same-sex spouses rationally related to caring for and providing for veteran families?

The court said no.  Relying on expert testimony, the court noted that “veteran’s benefits are essential to ensuring that servicemembers perform to their ‘maximum potential,’ and other purposes justifying veterans benefits including readiness, recruiting, cohesion, and retention.”  Further, the court concluded that excluding same-sex spouses were not rationally related to the promotion of gender equality.

The court, based on the stated purpose of the Veterans Benefits statute, held that there was no rational basis for prohibiting same-sex survivors to receive the survivor benefits.

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Filed under civil rights, District Court, federal, legal decision, Pending Legislation, Supreme Court

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