April 7, 2014
Victory! Transgender Man’s Surviving Spouse Wins Pension Benefits
We are thrilled to announce a major victory for the widow of a transgender man. Following TLDEF’s intervention, a major American car manufacturer reversed an initial decision to deny the woman her husband’s pension benefits based on its determination that their nearly-30-year marriage was void because he was transgender. We are sharing more details below, but changing the names of those involved, because the surviving spouse wishes to remain anonymous. It’s a long story, but a good one.
Michael was employed by a major car manufacturer in the Midwest for 40 years. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012, Michael and his wife Nancy contacted his company’s benefits administrator. Michael and Nancy wanted to ensure that everything was in order so that Nancy, as Michael’s widow, would receive his pension benefits after he died. The benefits included lifelong income and health insurance.
From the very beginning of the process, Michael and Nancy were told that Nancy would not receive benefits. The benefits administrator challenged the validity of Michael and Nancy’s marriage because Michael was transgender, stating that their marriage was void as a same-sex union. When he died in 2012, just after contacting TLDEF, he and Nancy were still being told that Nancy would not receive spousal benefits. It was Michael’s dying wish that Nancy do everything she could to get the benefits that would protect her and their family.
Michael had reason to be concerned. Upon his death, Nancy lost his income. His family lost its grasp on the middle class life that they had. Their company health insurance was cancelled. They adjusted to a new life of survival on food stamps and Medicaid benefits.
About Michael & Nancy
Michael and Nancy first met in 1965. They grew up in the same Midwestern town and were close friends throughout high school. They lost touch for a period after school, during which time Nancy married another man and subsequently divorced. Michael and Nancy reconnected after thirteen years apart and rekindled their friendship.
It soon blossomed into a romantic relationship. To Nancy it had always been clear that Michael was male, even though he had been labeled female at birth. That is not to say that Michael’s journey was an easy one. Michael and Nancy together faced many challenges relating to Michael’s gender transition. But they made the decision to marry. And by the time of their marriage, Michael had completed steps to socially, legally and medically transition to living an authentic life as a man.
The Road to Victory
Nothing came easily after Michael died. Because his birth certificate listed his sex as female, the funeral home insisted upon recording Michael as female on his death certificate. We worked with Nancy to ensure that Michael was laid to rest and officially documented as male, providing him with dignity in death, and sparing Nancy at least a bit of heartache.
After Michael died, we repeatedly contacted his company’s benefits administrator in an effort to facilitate Nancy’s receipt of Michael’s pension. In November 2013, we were informed that Michael was not “conclusively” male at the time of his marriage to Nancy, rendering their marriage invalid for pension purposes. Nancy was ineligible to receive Michael’s spousal benefits.
We filed an appeal with the benefits administrator and then contacted the company’s General Counsel in February to convince the company to do the right thing. In our letter, we reminded the company that while Michael had spent his personal life in love with Nancy, he had spent his professional life in service to the company. He was male throughout his life, and had made his gender transition known to the company decades ago, despite the great personal and professional risk he faced. He was married to Nancy for decades and the company had always treated them like any other married couple. Michael expected that his service to the company would be rewarded – not with special treatment – but with equal treatment and the same benefits that any other 40-year veteran of the company’s workforce would expect to receive.
We pointed out that the company had consistently recognized Nancy as Michael’s wife while he was alive and that it could not suddenly treat her differently now that he had died. We informed the company that Michael was considered male by state and federal authorities and that the company’s refusal to recognize Michael as male flew in the face of all of the evidence.
Late last week, Nancy received great news. The company has agreed that she is Michael’s surviving spouse. She will begin receiving his pension benefits next month, along with the back payments she is due since Michael’s death.
Nancy is thrilled with the outcome, and we are, too. Too often, transgender people find that the families they have created are challenged as “void” and “invalid.” Hard-working people who have played by the rules and simply want to be treated fairly find that their plans and dreams are upended. Stories like Michael and Nancy’s spotlight the importance of relationship recognition for transgender families. We will continue to speak out and take action in cases like this as we move towards a society that treats transgender people equally in all aspects of life.
In addition to TLDEF, the legal team representing Michael and Nancy included Sarah O’Connell and Michael Flynn of Norton Rose Fulbright LLP. We are grateful for their assistance.