Shaheen, Hassan Call on VA Secretary to End Discrimination Against Same-Sex Spouses

July 18, 2022

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) joined U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and 38 Democratic colleagues in the Senate in a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough urging answers and speedy action to ensure same-sex veteran couples have access to the full and complete spousal benefits they are owed. 

“Each of our veterans and their spouses deserve the same quality care and services once they leave the military – no matter who they love. Our veterans and their families, who selflessly served our nation and have sacrificed so much, must be afforded the benefits they have so rightly earned. This is not only a matter of fairness and equity, it is the morally right thing to do,” wrote the Senators. “Yet, we have recently heard from numerous survivors about issues they are facing when they attempt to access the full Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits that they are entitled to under the law.” 

In the letter, the Senators underscored reported examples of VA’s refusal to deem same-sex marriages as having met the statutory marriage duration or deadline requirements when couples were legally barred from marrying within that timeframe immediately before the veteran’s death. The Senators highlighted how denying benefits in cases where same-sex couples failed to meet marriage duration requirements have left them ineligible for benefits due to living in places where marriage laws barred them from marrying—even though they were in loving, committed relationships and would have married earlier if they could.  

In addition, the Senators noted VA’s setting of effective dates for benefits deepens the unconstitutional practice of same-sex marriage bans. Even after the Department of Justice announced that it would no longer enforce laws banning benefits to same-sex spouses of veterans, VA interpreted the announcement to apply retroactively, but only “as to claims for benefits based on same-sex marriages that were pending on direct review as of” the date of the Attorney General’s announcement, cutting short benefits of those in same-sex marriages who initially applied for such benefits, and were denied due to bans on same-sex marriage. The Senators made clear that VA must end its discriminatory treatment of veterans’ spouses based on who they love, and apply effective dates as though the former unconstitutional laws were never enacted. 

The Senators conclude, “We promise to take care of all our veterans after they serve our country, and that includes ensuring that their partners have access to full and complete spousal benefits. Correcting this error will help end the discriminatory treatment of potentially thousands of same-sex veteran couples and allow them to access the benefits they are owed.”

Shaheen has long supported extending veteran benefits to same-sex couples and their families. The American Rescue Plan that Shaheen helped pass and was later signed into law strengthens veterans’ health care services, including to support mental health and telehealth, and also includes significant funding for job training to help veterans get good-paying jobs. Shaheen also helped secure key priorities for Granite State veterans in bipartisan veterans legislation that was signed into law last year, including the Deborah Sampson Act, which Shaheen helped introduce to eliminate barriers to care and services that many women veterans face. In additional, Shaheen cosponsored bipartisan legislation, which is now law, to improve veterans’ access to mental health care. 

Full text of the letter is available here.