Social Security Updates Name Change Policy
The Social Security Administration has updated its policy so that partners in same-sex couples can go through the agency to change their names.
The development comes after the federal agency had denied numerous couples the right, even though same-sex marriage has been legal in California for more than a month and an SSA document from July acknowledged marriage equality coming to the state. The document also said marriage certificates for same-sex couples who've been legally married are "valid evidence of a name change."
The policy change hadn't made it to the Social Security office in the East Bay city of Fremont when Lisa Hagan, 46, went there to have her name changed. Hagan - whose maiden name is Gray - married Dawn Hagan, 37, August 12 in Oakland. The women, who live in Fremont, have been together for four years.
Hagan went to her local SSA office August 14, with a completed Social Security form number 5 (http://www.ssa.gov/online/ss-5.pdf) and her marriage certificate in hand.
A worker there "said I had all the right paperwork," but then "she asked me if it was a same-sex marriage, and I said, 'Yes,'" said Hagan.
The employee left. When she returned about 15 minutes later, "She said she was sorry, they did not have the go-ahead to do name changes for same-sex marriages yet," said Hagan. She said the staffer told her that she would hold onto the paperwork, and once the agency's policy changed, she'd submit the documents and send Hagan a new Social Security card.
"Then she congratulated me for getting married, which was nice, but I was a little disappointed," said Hagan. "I didn't know what to say. I was confused."
She added, "I didn't feel like she was being homophobic. She seemed kind of disappointed herself that she couldn't fix it for me."
When Hagan got home, she emailed the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the national LGBT organization based in San Francisco. An NCLR staffer told her "they were getting similar complaints," said Hagan.
In an interview Monday, August 19, Shannon Minter, NCLR's legal director, said, "A lot of people are having problems" changing their names even after the U.S. Supreme Court announced June 26 that it had effectively struck down the state's Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban.
"The Social Security Administration has not updated its guidance, so all the Social Security staff are still looking at an outdated guidance that says same-sex couples cannot marry in California," said Minter.
Minter said NCLR has alerted the federal agency to the problem and he and others were "pretty confident they will fix it promptly."
Shortly after Minter spoke with the Bay Area Reporter he emailed the paper a link to the SSA document outlining the policy update ( https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/1502712006).
The document is dated July 26 but wasn't set to be effective until August 16 - two days after Hagan's visit to the agency's Fremont office. It explains the Supreme Court's ruling and the events that led up to it. Two days after the justices announced their 5-4 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted its stay on same-sex marriages, allowing the weddings to resume immediately in the state.
"On June 28, 2013, California again began authorizing the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples," the Social Security document said. "Therefore, the Social Security Administration (SSA) should accept California marriage certificates issued to same-sex couples, between June 17, 2008 and November 4, 2008," when such marriages were first legal statewide, "or after June 27, 2013, as valid evidence of a name change."
A Social Security spokeswoman wasn't available to comment for this story.
Hagan said in an interview after the policy change was released that she would "wait a few days" for her name change to be finalized, and she'd return to the Fremont office if she didn't hear from agency staff.
Finally, in an email Wednesday morning, August 21, she said, "I checked my online account with Social Security and they've already changed my name to Hagan."
It seems Social Security staff should have been aware that same-sex marriage is allowed in California when Hagan first visited the agency, but Minter was sympathetic.
"I understand they work for the government," he said. "... I wouldn't point the blame to those individual employees," since they're supposed to follow the agency's guidelines.
Going through the SSA is "the simplest way" for someone in a same-sex couple to change their name, said Minter. The alternative is to go before a judge, "and that's much more cumbersome," he said.
In an email last Wednesday, before the SSA policy change went into effect, Dawn Hagan said her reaction to her wife's experience was "disappointment."
"Lisa was really looking forward to changing her name and we thought all the obstacles had been lifted," she said. "It's hard that we are still treated differently than any other couple just married."
Dawn Hagan was pleased with the federal agency's policy update. In an email after the change was announced, she said, "Lisa and I are hoping this will be the last hiccup in this process. It's the little things like this that are a constant reminder that we all need to do our part to ensure that we are all treated equally."