Guadalupe and Roseanne T~ both received Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Guadalupe
starting in 1985, and Roseanne starting in 1986. Guadalupe is still in current pay.
SSA apparently terminated Roseanne’s SSI in June 2010. In May 2010, Roseanne and Guadalupe
submitted evidence that, in 1993, they received proceeds from a wrongful death suit
filed by the estate of NH Ruben C~. You asked whether an order from the Circuit Court
of Wayne County (Michigan), identifying Roseanne and Guadalupe as the NH’s children,
is sufficient to establish that Roseanne and Guadalupe had a parent-child relationship
with the NH for purposes of entitlement to Title II benefits on the NH’s account.
We conclude that the final order is not binding on SSA, but could be considered acceptable
evidence to establish the parent-child relationship necessary for Title II benefits.
NH Ruben C~ died on April 3, 1992. The NH was domiciled in Michigan. In 1992, the
NH’s estate filed a wrongful death action against Detroit Receiving Hospital in the
Circuit Court of Wayne County (Michigan). The court appointed three guardians ad litem,
presumably to represent the interests of the six minor children who sought to participate
in the wrongful death action.  The court initially identified the children as Ruben B~, Robert B~, Roseanne C~,
Guadalupe C~, Julie C~, and Ruben C~. Later, the court recognized that the “C~” children
did not share the NH’s surname, but instead bore the surname “T~.” An attorney represented
the four T~ children, who all resided in Texas. Guadalupe C~, the NH’s mother, and
Diane B~, a resident of Michigan and the mother of the two B~ children, served jointly
as personal representatives of the NH’s estate, and were also represented by separate
counsel. On December 22, 1992, the court approved a settlement in the wrongful death
case. On April 15, 1993, the court issued a final order approving the distribution
of wrongful death proceeds (Final Order). The Final Order named the NH’s mother, father,
and six minor children, including “the decedent’s four children located in Texas,”
as wrongful death heirs.
In 1992, Diane B~ filed applications for survivors’ benefits on the NH’s account on
behalf of her minor children, Ruben and Robert B~. SSA granted those applications.
In 1993, the mother of Ruben, Julie, Guadalupe and Roseanne T~ filed applications
on their behalf for survivor’s benefits on the NH’s account. The mother of the T~
children was not married to the NH, and no father was listed on the children’s’ birth
certificates. The mother did not submit the Final Order in support of the applications.
SSA denied the applications because there was insufficient evidence to establish a
parent-child relationship with the NH. More than fifteen years later, in May 2010,
new claims were filed for Roseanne and Guadalupe. The 1993 Final Order was submitted
to support the new claims.
Section 202(d) of the Act provides for the payments of benefits to the child of an
insured wage earner who is retired, disabled, or deceased. 42 U.S.C. § 402(d). In
determining whether an applicant is the child of an insured person, the Commissioner
of Social Security applies the law that would be applied in determining the devolution
of intestate personal property by the courts of the state where the insured individual
is domiciled at the time of the number-holder’s death. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A); 20
C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(4); POMS GN 00306.001(2)(a).
The NH was domiciled in Michigan at the time of his death. Therefore, if Guadalupe
and Roseanne could inherit the NH’s property under Michigan’s law of intestate succession,
they are the NH’s children for the purpose of entitlement of child’s insurance benefits
on the NH’s account. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.355; POMS GN 00306.001(C)(1)(a).
There is no evidence that the NH had an estate that was distributed under Michigan’s
law of intestate succession. However, the Final Order in the wrongful death suit identifies
Guadalupe and Roseanne T~ as the NH’s minor children, and includes them as wrongful
death heirs for the purpose of receiving proceeds from the wrongful death suit. The
only people who can recover damages in an action under the Michigan wrongful death
statutes are “the deceased’s spouse, children, descendants, parents, grandparents,
brothers and sister, and, if none of these persons survive the deceased, then those
persons to whom the estate of the deceased would pass under the laws of intestate
succession determined as of the date of the deceased.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.2922(3)(a).
 Michigan courts use the state law of intestate succession to determine whether an
individual qualifies as a wrongful death heir. Turner v. Grace Hospital, 530 N.W.2d 487, 489 (Mich. Ct. App. 1995), rev’d on other grounds, 560 N.W.2d 629
(Mich. 1997); Estate of Renaud v. Bolling, 509 N.W.2d 858, 859 (Mich. Ct. App. 1994). Therefore, the question in this case is
whether SSA is bound by, or can otherwise accept, the Final Order as evidence that
Guadalupe and Roseanne could inherit from the NH as his children.
A state court decision is binding on SSA when (1) a state court of competent jurisdiction
has previously adjudicated an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits; (2) the
issue was genuinely contested before the state court by parties with opposing interests;
(3) the issue falls within the general category of domestic relations law; and (4)
the resolution by the State trial court is consistent with the law enunciated by the
highest court in the state. Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1973). This case squarely meets only two of the four
prongs of the G~ test, and minimally complies with a third. Because all four prongs are not satisfied, SSA
is not bound by the Final Order. However, SSA may consider the Final Order as evidence
in support of the claims.
The Final Order meets the first prong of the G~ test because the Circuit Court of Wayne County is a state court of competent jurisdiction,
and the Final Order recognized Guadalupe and Roseanne as the NH’s children. Michigan
circuit courts have general jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases, including
domestic relations cases, with a special office for domestic relations cases involving
minor children. See A Guide to the Michigan Courts, http://www.courtreference.com/Michigan-Courts.htm#160.
The Final Order also meets the third prong of the G~ test. Wrongful death suits do not fall into the core category of domestic relations cases,
which generally encompasses divorce, annulment, awards of alimony, child support,
child custody and visitation, as well as modifications of such decrees. See Friedlander v. Friedlander, 149 F.2d 739, 740 (7th Cir. 1998) (discussing the domestic relations exception to
federal diversity jurisdiction; distinguishing between core domestic relations cases
and cases in the penumbra of the domestic relations exception); Cook v. Winters, 645 F. Supp. 158, 159 (S.D. Texas 1986). However, because wrongful death suits often
require a court to investigate questions of marital or parent-child relationships
in order to determine whether a plaintiff has standing to bring suit, federal courts
have recognized that wrongful death suits may properly be considered domestic relations
cases. For example, in Cook v. Winters, the court invoked the domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction,
and abstained from exercising jurisdiction over a wrongful death suit that would have
required the court to determine the existence of a parent-child relationship between
the plaintiff and the decedent. Id., 645 F. Supp. at 159 (citing Goins v. Goins, 777 F.2d 1059, 1061 (5th Cir. 1985)). In declining to exercise jurisdiction, the
court in Cook cited federal courts’ longstanding deference to state courts on domestic
relations issues. That was also the Sixth Circuit’s rationale for the third prong
of G~. Compare C~, 645 F. Supp. at 159, with G~, 474 F.2d at 1373. In the case of the T~ children, the issue of parentage was not
simply a question of fact for the wrongful death action. The T~ children had to establish
the parent-child relationship in order to have standing to participate in the wrongful
death action brought by the NH’s estate. Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.2922(3)(a). Under
both federal and Michigan law, standing is a question of law that cannot be conferred
by agreement of the parties. Apex Digital, Inc. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 572 F.3d 440, 443, 444 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)); In re Complaint of MTCA, 615 N.W.2d 255 (Mich. Ct. App. 2000). For these reasons, the Final Order can properly
be considered a domestic relations case within the meaning of the G~ test.
The Final Order is not facially inconsistent with Michigan law as enunciated by the
higher Michigan courts, including the Michigan Supreme Court. Neither is it definitively
clear that the court applied the correct legal standard. The Michigan Supreme Court
holds that in determining whether a man is the natural father of an out-of-wedlock
child, state courts are limited to the tests of parentage set out in the state’s law
of intestate succession, Mich. Comp. Laws § 700.111(4). Estate of Scharenbroch v. Stephens, 477 N.W.2d 436, 437 (Mich. Ct. App. 1991) (citing Easley v. John Hancock Mutual Life Ins. Co., 271 N.W.2d 513 (Mich. 1978)); T~, 530 N.W.2d at 589. See also Tryc v. Michigan Veterans’ Facility, 545 N.W.2d 642, 646 (Mich. 1996). At the time the Final Order was issued in 1992,
the only statutory test of parentage that the state court could have applied in finding
that the T~ children were the NH’s natural children was the existence of a mutually
acknowledged parent-child relationship that continued until the NH’s death. Mich.
Comp. Laws § 700.111(4)(c).  The statute requires both man and child to make some acknowledgement of the parent-child
relationship while both are living, but does not require an ongoing social relationship
Mich. Comp. Laws § 700.111(4)(c); Estate of J~, 525 N.W.2d at 494-95; Estate of S~, 477 N.W.2d at 437; Estate of S~, 383 N.W.2d 266, 268-69 (Mich. Ct. App. 1985).
However, the Final Order did nothing more than identify Guadalupe and Roseanne as
the NH’s children. It made no explicit findings regarding a parent-child relationship,
and did not explain why or on what basis the court recognized Roseanne and Guadalupe
as the NH’s children. The attorney for the T~ children has informed SSA that she possesses
no other documents relating to the wrongful death suit. For that reason, we cannot
definitively verify that the state court used the appropriate statutory test in determining
parentage. Nonetheless, this is not a case where the state court clearly used a test
that did not comply with state law, or issued a parentage decision in the face of
obviously conflicting evidence regarding parentage. See, e.g., Outwater obo McClinchey v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 894 F. Supp. 1114 (E.D. Mich. 1995) (SSA did not err when it did not defer to a
Michigan paternity order that did not comply with the criteria set forth in § 700.111)
(citing G~, 474 F.2d at 1373). Because the Final Order is not, on its face, inconsistent with
Michigan law, it minimally complies with the fourth prong of the G~ test.
The Final Order does not, however, meet the second prong of the G~ test. The Circuit Court of Wayne County issued the Final Order pursuant to a settlement
agreement, rather than a fully litigated proceeding genuinely contested by parties
with opposing interests. In addition, the attorney for the T~ children has informed
SSA that, to the best of her knowledge, none of the other participants in the wrongful
death suit actively challenged the parentage of the T~ children. Consequently, the
Final Order is not binding on SSA as determination of parentage. G~, 474 F.2d at 1373.
However, the fact that the Final Order is not binding under G~ does not mean that SSA cannot accept it as establishing a parent-child relationship.
Even though it was not fully litigated, the Final Order does have other indicia of
reliability. First, it is not strictly an ex parte order. See G~, 474 F.2d at 1373. Under Michigan law, state courts cannot simply approve a settlement
in a wrongful death case. If the parties to a wrongful death action want to settle
the case, the representatives of the deceased’s estate must petition the court, which
must conduct a hearing before approving or rejecting the settlement. Mich. Comp. Laws
§ 700.3924(1). We may presume that the court held such a hearing in this case. See Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 415-16 (1971) (recognizing a presumption of regularity).
Second, as previously stated, the issue of parentage was jurisdictional: the state
court needed to make a determination of parentage in order to decide whether the T~
children had standing to pursue a wrongful death action. Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.2922(3)(a).
Under both federal and Michigan law, standing cannot be conferred by the agreement
of the parties. Apex Digital, Inc. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 572 F.3d 440, 443, 444 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)); In re Complaint of MTCA, 615 N.W.2d 255 (Mich. Ct. App. 2000). Although we cannot determine how the court
reached its decision, under the presumption of judicial regularity we generally cannot
assume that the court violated its duty and merely accepted an agreement of the parties
that the T~ children had standing. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, 401 U.S. at
Third, even though the Final Order represents a settlement rather than a contested
action, there were other parties to the wrongful death action whose interests were
not fully aligned with those of the T~ children. For example, the fact that the T~
children were permitted to participate in the wrongful death action significantly
decreased the share of proceeds that were available to the two B~ children. The B~
children were apparently represented by a guardian ad litem, who had a fiduciary duty
to represent their best interest in the case. Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 600.2922(6)(c);
700.2901(2)(d). That fiduciary duty would likely have led the guardian to oppose the
T~ children’s participation in the proceeds of the settlement if the guardian were
not satisfied that they were appropriate wrongful death heirs. The personal representatives
of the NH’s estate – the NH’s mother and the B~ children’s mother – also had a fiduciary
duty to use their authority in the best interest of the estate and in the interests
of the parties who participated in the estate. Steinway v. Bolden, 460 N.W.2d 206 (Mich. 1990).
For these reasons, even though it is not binding under G~, the Final Order carries sufficient indicia of reliability that SSA may accept it
as establishing the existence of a parent-child relationship between the NH and the
T~ children. G~, 474 F.2d at 1373 (citing In re B~, 136 U.S. 586 (1890)).
For the reasons discussed above, we conclude that the Final Order is not binding on
SSA, but could be viewed as sufficient evidence to establish the existence of a parent-child
relationship between the NH and Roseanne and Guadalupe T~.