You asked (1) whether court documents provided by the wage earner terminated his status
as the claimant’s parent under Arizona state law, thus impacting the claimant’s eligibility
for child’s benefits under the Social Security Act, beginning September 2006; and
(2) if so, whether the agency properly terminated the claimant’s benefits.
No, these documents do not affect the claimant’s status as the wage earner’s child
under the Act. The agency should not have terminated the claimant’s benefits.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Neither the wage earner, Scott, nor Michelle (now Michelle ) disputes that Scott is
the biological parent of the claimant, Mason (now Mason ).
In December 2005, Scott petitioned the Arizona Superior Court, family court part,
to end his child support, custody, and parenting time obligations to Mason. On December
20, 2005, both Scott and Michelle signed a “stipulation to modify custody, parenting
time and child support.”
On December 23, 2005, the Superior Court judge signed an “order to modify custody,
parenting time and child support” based on the stipulation. The order indicated that
the “parties have stipulated and agreed to termination of the Father’s parental rights
and will be filing a separate action in the Juvenile Court of Maricopa County to terminate
Father’s parental rights.” Although the court indicated that the parties “will be
filing” a separate action to terminate Scott’s parental rights, the agency has not
received evidence showing that they filed such an action. Rather, it appears that
Scott submitted only the stipulation and order to “modify custody, parenting time
and child support” as the sole evidence of legal termination of rights.
In its order, the Court found that Michelle was financially capable of supporting
Mason, that it was in Mason’s best interest that Scott not pay any further child support,
and that Michelle had waived any future claim to child support. It also ordered Michelle
to maintain medical insurance on Mason and to pay any medical or dental expenses.
The order specified that only Michelle should claim Mason as a child dependent for
income tax purposes, and that Scott would “have no further contact or parenting time”
On April 28, 2006, Scott applied for disability insurance benefits (DIB). The agency
found him disabled beginning March 25, 2006.
On September 1, 2006, an auxiliary application was filed for Mason and thereafter
the agency started paying Mason on Scott’s record.
In an undated statement, Based on the context of the statement, it appears to be a
written follow-up to a phone conversation between Michelle and field office personnel
on September 1, 2006.
Michelle advised the agency that Scott had given up “all legal rights” to Mason, and
that she was Mason’s only legal guardian. She stated that Mason had not yet been
adopted by her husband, Mark, but they were planning on doing so. She also stated
that she was in the process of changing Mason’s legal name to Mason. Information provided
with this opinion request indicates that Mason’s legal name was changed to Mason,
but his name remains Mason on agency records.
On February 24, 2009, Michelle signed a statement attesting that Mason currently lived
with her and her husband, Mark, but Mason had “never been adopted by anyone” and was
still Scott’s biological son.
On May 22, 2012, Michelle submitted a signed statement attesting that Mason had never
been adopted by her current husband, Mark. She indicated that Scott remains listed
as the father on Mason’s birth certificate, and that “the state still recognizes Scott
as [Mason’s] biological father with no parental rights.”
The evidence indicates that the wage earner currently lives in Florida. However,
he lived in Arizona when he entered into the custody and child support agreement in
2005, and when the application for child’s benefits was submitted in 2006. Additionally,
the claimant currently lives in Arizona.
The claimants were born within the marriage, and this creates a presumption under
Arizona law that the claimants are the biological children of the wage earner. Pyeatte v. Pyeatte, 21 Ariz. App. 448, 450, 520 P.2d 542, 544 (1974) citing Anonymous v. Anonymous, 10 Ariz. App. 496, 499, 460 P.2d 32, 35 (1969). Arizona law provides that a judicial
termination of a parent-child relationship divests the parent and the child of all
legal rights, privileges, duties and obligations with respect to each other except
the right of the child to inherit from, and to receive support from, the parent. Ariz.
Rev. Stat. § 8-539. See e.g., Schnepp v. State Department of Economic Security, 183 Ariz. 24, 28, 899 P.2d 185, 189 (1995). This contrasts sharply with the effect
of termination under Nevada law.
Under the Social Security Act (Act), a child is entitled to Child’s Insurance Benefits
if he or she applies; is the “child,” of an “insured individual;” The definition of
“child” includes the legally adopted child, stepchild, or in limited circumstances,
grandchild of an insured individual. Social Security Act § 216(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.354. An
“insured individual” is an individual who is entitled to old-age or disability insurance
benefits. Social Security Act § 202(d)(1).
is unmarried and a minor (or meets disability requirements) at the time of the application;
and was dependent on the insured wage earner at the time the application is filed. Social
Security Act § 202(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350.
In determining whether a claimant qualifies as the child of the insured individual,
the Commissioner applies the law governing “the devolution of intestate personal property
by the courts of the State in which such insured individual is domiciled . . . at
the time the application was filed.” Social Security Act § 216(h)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.355. If an applicant establishes that he or she is the insured’s child under
section 216(h)(2) of the Act, the applicant is deemed dependent upon the insured,
unless he or she has been adopted by someone else and the insured is not living with
the child or contributing to the child’s support. Social Security Act § 202(d)(3);
20 C.F.R. § 404.361. An applicant who is the son or daughter of an individual entitled
to DIB, but who is not (and is not deemed to be) the child of such insured individual
under section 216(h)(2) of the Act, “shall nevertheless be deemed” to be the child
of such insured individual if the child is his biological child and one of the provisions
in section 216(h)(3)(B) is satisfied.
Here, the wage earner’s state of domicile was Arizona when he applied for benefits. Therefore,
we must determine whether Arizona probate law permits the claimant to inherit from
him as his child under the laws of intestate succession.
A. The wage earner is the claimant’s “natural parent” under Arizona law.
Under Arizona intestacy law, “a person is the child of that person’s natural parents,
regardless of their marital status.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 14-2114(A). See also Program Operations Manual Support (POMS) GN 00306.420 (establishing paternity under Arizona law where the issue is in dispute). The intestacy
provisions do not define the term “natural parents.” However, Arizona case-law indicates
that “natural parent” means “biological parent.” See, e.g., Anonymous Wife v. Anonymous Husband, 739 P.2d 794 (Ariz. 1987) (using the term “natural father” to refer to biological
father of child in paternity and child support proceedings); Matter of Estate of R~, 928 P.2d 735, 738 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1996) (equating the term “biological parent” with
the term “natural parent” used in Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 14-2114(B)).
Scott is Mason’s biological father. Thus, under Arizona law, Mason can establish
a “natural” parent-child relationship with Scott for the purpose of intestate succession,
regardless of the lack of certain parental rights or obligations, and actual dependency.
B. The claimant’s right to inherit from the wage earner was not affected by the wage
earner’s custody and support agreement with the claimant’s mother, nor would it be
affected by a court order terminating the parent-child relationship.
The evidence provided indicates only that Scott obtained a court order releasing him
from his state-law support and caregiving obligations to Mason. The available evidence
does not indicate that either Scott or Michelle petitioned the Arizona juvenile court
to terminate Scott’s parent-child relationship with Mason. Arizona requires a formal
process to terminate parental rights that cannot be accomplished merely by mutual
agreement. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 8-533 – 8-538 (procedures governing a petition for terminating
the parent-child relationship include a hearing, a social study performed by a third
party, and satisfaction of statutory grounds for severance of relationship). The
December 2005 Superior Court order indicating that the parents would need to file
a separate juvenile court action to terminate parental rights seems consistent with
the requirements of Arizona law. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 8-532(A) (providing that the juvenile court shall have exclusive
jurisdiction over petitions to terminate the parent-child relationship).
More importantly, even if Scott obtained an order terminating the parent-child relationship,
under Arizona law Mason would still retain his right to inherit intestate from Scott. “An
order terminating the parent-child relationship shall divest the parent and the child
of all legal rights, privileges, duties and obligations with respect to each other
except the right of the child to inherit and support from the parent.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 8-539 (emphasis added); see POMS PR 01005.004 Arizona (recognizing and applying Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 8-539 to conclude
children remained eligible for benefits after wage earner’s parental rights were terminated). Arizona
law is specific that the “right of inheritance and support shall only be terminated
by a final order of adoption.” Id.; see also Schnepp v. Arizona, 899 P.2d 185, 189 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1995).
C. The “natural parent” relationship was not severed by adoption.
Generally, Arizona law provides that adoption “completely sever[s]” the rights of
the child’s former parents. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 8117(A)-(B). For purposes of intestate
inheritance, a person is the child of the adopting parent or parents and not of the
natural parents. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 142114(B).
However, Arizona inheritance law contains a specific exception for step-parent adoptions:
A child can inherit intestate from his or her adoptive parents, but can also inherit
from the natural parents when the adoptive parent is the spouse of either natural
parent. Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 8-117, 142114(B) (“Adoption of a child by the spouse
of either natural parent has no effect on the relationship between the child and that
natural parent or on the right of the child or a descendant of the child to inherit
from or through the other natural parent.”). Arizona courts have upheld this exception
and harmonized the potentially conflicting provisions of Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 8-117
and 14-2114(B) by understanding them to address “different facets of adoption”. See Edonna v. Heckman, 253 P.3d 627, 630 n.4 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2011); Estate of R~, 928 P.2d at 738.
Michelle initially submitted a statement that her current husband intended to adopt
Mason but later submitted two signed, dated, statements attesting that Mason had never
been adopted by her husband or anyone else. She also indicated that Scott is still
listed as the father on Mason’s birth certificate. Although the evidence submitted
to OGC did not include a copy of the birth certificate, this fact does not appear
to be in dispute.
The agency has no evidence contradicting Michelle’s statement that Mason has not been
adopted. Therefore, Mason’s “natural” parent-child relationship with Scott was not
severed by adoption.
In addition, whether the agency has evidence of an adoption by Michelle’s husband
does not determine the outcome for this claim. Even if Michelle’s husband had adopted
Mason, Mason would remain eligible for child’s benefits on Scott’s record because
Arizona’s law on intestate succession permits inheritance from the natural parent
even after a child is adopted by the other natural parent’s spouse. Furthermore, even if Arizona
law did not include this inheritance exception for step-parent adoptions, a child
may remain eligible for benefits even after adoption, depending on the date of the
adoption. POMS RS 00203.035(C) provides that “[t]he adoption of a child already entitled to benefits does not
terminate the child’s benefits.”
See Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 142114(B); Estate of R~, 928 P.2d at 738.
Because the evidence does not show that Mason has been adopted by someone other than
Michelle’s spouse, he remains Scott’s child for the purpose of intestate succession
under Arizona law.
The claimant can be considered the wage earner’s child under Arizona law because he
has a parent-child relationship with the wage earner for the purpose of intestate
succession. We conclude that the claimant is the wage earner’s child as defined in
section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Act. Thus, the claimant is eligible for benefits on the
wage earner’s account and should be reinstated.