Federal Judge Rules That Lesbian Widow Is Entitled To Late Wife’s Survivor Benefits


Ellyn Farley and Jennifer Tobits

Ellyn Farley and Jennifer Tobits

In the wake of the Windsor ruling overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, another federal case has resulted in a victory for the recognition of a same-sex marriage. This case was quite similar to that of Edie Windsor, as Jennifer Tobits fought for the survivor benefits of her late wife Sarah Ellyn Farley. Farley had been enrolled in a retirement plan that met federal standards under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Judge C. Darnell Jones II, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that their marriage was valid in the eyes of the federal government, even if it wasn’t recognized in Pennsylvania, where the law firm for which Farley worked was based.

The case begins to address post-Windsor questions about whether the federal government continues to recognize same-sex marriages even when couples move to a state that doesn’t. Arguably, Jones essentially ruled that “place of celebration” is all that matters, and since Tobits and Farley’s marriage was valid in Canada, then it’s valid in the United States, but as BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner points out, he wrote about it in a way that may have avoided setting too much precedent.

Tobits and Farley married in Toronto and they lived together in Illinois, even though Farley’s employer was in Pennsylvania. Jones ruled that it didn’t matter that Pennsylvania law didn’t recognize their marriage, because ERISA is only impacted by federal recognition. Hypothetically, the same standard should apply to where they live. But even though the federal government does not recognize civil unions, Jones used Illinois’ civil union law — which does recognize same-sex marriages from other states as civil unions — to justify the federal recognition:

Illinois, like many states, does not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. By virtue of its civil union statute, however, Illinois can recognize same-sex marriages solemnized in other jurisdictions, such as Canada. An Order from the Circuit Court for Cook County, Illinois, dated October 21, 2011, declared Ms. Tobits a party to a civil union with Ms. Farley and declared her Ms. Farley’s sole heir. Furthermore, that court granted Ms. Tobits’ request to become administrator, authorizing her to take possession of and collect the estate of the decedent and to do all acts required by law.

Edie Windsor and her late wife Thea Spyer had also married in Canada, but they lived in New York, where their marriage was recognized as a marriage. Jones’ interpretation of Illinois law here avoids answering the actual question of whether the United States federal government recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other countries. Indeed, because the U.S. allows states to define marriage, it’s unclear how exactly the federal government would (or could) answer questions about international marriages.

Regardless of those details, this case still represents an important victory for same-sex couples. Tobits had to engage in this suit because Farley’s parents attempted to claim the survivor benefits for themselves, assuming that the couple’s marriage would not be recognized. Had DOMA still been in place, it would have been as if their relationship never existed, and everything Tobits had shared with Farley could have been torn away from her. In a post-DOMA world, legal recognition supercedes homophobic intentions.