A widow seeking survivor benefits is hoping for a change of heart from the Justice Department.
Patricia Rolfingsmeyer, 71, is challenging the federal government’s denial of employee death benefits. Rolfingsmeyer’s spouse, Tina Sammons, was an Air Force veteran and Postal Service employee.
The women had been in a 16-year relationship, but were married just three months when Sammons died of breast cancer. At the time, same-sex marriage was not legal in the couple’s home state of Pennsylvania.
Rolfingsmeyer’s attorney Jonathan Franklin told the Washington Post he is hopeful the Biden administration will do the right thing and grant his client “the same benefits she would have gotten had she been in an opposite-sex relationship — the benefits she was denied for one reason and one reason only, and that is being unconstitutionally prevented from being married.”
The Office of Personnel Management previously refused to pay Rolfingsmeyer survivor benefits due to a nine-month minimum marriage requirement. The Trump administration upheld that decision to prevent what it termed in court filings as sham deathbed marriages without regard to gender or sexual orientation.
Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage on May 20, 2014, three months after Sammons’ death. The women had traveled to Maryland in November of 2013 where they were married at the Baltimore County courthouse.
Rolfingsmeyer and Sammons went on their first date in 1997. They bought rings in 2003 and enjoyed spending time fishing and camping with their dogs. Rolfingsmeyer stayed by Sammons’ side when she underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy.
Surviving spouses of federal employees who work for the government for more than 10 years as Sammons did are provided a death benefit and annuity. Rolfingsmeyer is seeking to claim an estimated six-figure monetary amount in survivor benefits.
Lambda Legal’s Defense and Education Fund filed a brief in support of Rolfingsmeyer.
“Same-sex couples have suffered for decades under discriminatory marriage laws that treated them as second-class citizens, and robbed them of the very safety net benefits to which their spouses contributed to throughout their entire working lives,” Lambda Legal argued. “After suffering a lifetime of being denied the benefits of formal relationship recognition, no survivor should be told that — because of those same discriminatory laws — they must now spend their later years further impoverished or without the same economic security afforded to others.”