You asked whether a Georgia court order stating the number holder is the natural parent
of a child claimant establishes paternity under Alabama intestacy law.
For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the Georgia court order, standing
alone, does not establish paternity under Alabama intestacy law.
BACKGROUND According to your inquiry, Joseph S. B~, the number holder (NH), died on December
23, 2010, while domiciled in Alabama. On December 27, 2010, Carla L~ (Claimant’s mother)
filed an application for child’s insurance benefits on NH’s account on behalf of her
son, Anthony P~ (Claimant). However, Claimant’s birth certificate dated January 18,
1996, lists Todd P~ (Husband) as his father. Claimant’s numident also shows Husband
as his father. Claimant’s mother married Husband on June 22, 1995, and they were married
when Claimant was born seven months later. According to Claimant’s mother, Husband’s
whereabouts are unknown.
On September 26, 1996, the Superior Court of Troup County, Georgia, issued an order
entitled “Long-Arm Child Support Enforcement Default Order and Judgment,” which found
NH was the natural parent of Claimant and ordered NH to pay weekly support for Claimant.
The court found NH had been lawfully served, but failed to appear in the matter. According
to the court, NH was subject to its jurisdiction under Ga. Code Ann. § 19-7-41, in
that, although NH was not a resident of Georgia, Claimant “was conceived as a result
of sexual intercourse within the State of Georgia.” There is no indication in the
order that the court conducted an evidentiary hearing. The court’s records reflect
that, subsequent to the order, NH did not file an appeal or any other pleading, nor
did the court issue any additional orders. Claimant’s mother states NH never met or
acknowledged Claimant as his son.
To qualify for child’s insurance benefits on the record of an individual who dies
a fully or currently insured individual, a claimant must be that individual’s “child.”
See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a)(1) (2010). A “child”
for purposes of section 202(d)(1) of the Act includes a claimant who is the insured
individual’s natural child. See Act § 216(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.354 (2010). If the putative father is deceased and
never married the child’s mother, the child’s status as the natural child of the putative
father is governed by either section 216(h)(2)(A) or 216(h)(3)(C) of the Act. As discussed
below, the evidence appears to be insufficient to establish a parent-child relationship
under either section 216(h)(2)(A) or 216(h)(3)(C) of the Act.
A claimant can qualify as the insured individual’s child under section 216(h)(2)(A)
of the Act if he could inherit the insured individual’s personal property as his child
under the intestacy laws of the state where the insured was domiciled when he died.
See Act § 216(h)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(a)(1), (b)(1), (b)(4) (2010). Because NH was
domiciled in Alabama when he died, we look to Alabama law.
Alabama, like every state, must generally give full faith and credit to the public
act, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. See U.S. Const. art. IV, § 1; 28 U.S.C. § 1738; Baker by Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 231-32 (1998). The Supreme Court has emphasized that with regard to
judgments, “the full faith and credit obligation is exacting.” Id. at 233.
A final judgment in one State, if rendered by a court with adjudicatory authority
over the subject matter and persons governed by the judgment, qualifies for recognition
throughout the land. For claim and issue preclusion (res judicata) purposes, in other
words, the judgment of the rendering State gains nationwide force.
Id. (footnote omitted), quoted in Palmer & Cay, Inc., v. Marsh & McLennan Cos., Inc., 404 F.3d 1297, 1310 (11th Cir. 2005). Alabama law recognizes that its courts must
give full faith and credit to other states’ judicial determinations of paternity,
under certain circumstances. See Ala. Code § 26-17-905 (2010); Ferguson v. State, 38 So. 2d 853, 854 (Ala. 1949); Camper v. State of Ala., 646 So. 2d 77, 77-78 (Ala. Civ. App. 1994) (holding that res judicata barred alleged
father from challenging Texas court’s prior determination of paternity). When considering
whether to give full faith and credit to a foreign judgment, a court must first consider
whether the original court had jurisdiction to issue the judgment. See Am. Steel Bldg. Co., Inc. v. Davidson & Richardson Constr. Co., 847 F.2d 1519, 1521 (11th Cir. 1988); Package Express Ctr., Inc. v. Maund, 957 So. 2d 1137, 1140 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006). The appropriate inquiry regarding jurisdiction
is limited to ascertaining whether the foreign court: (1) fully and fairly litigated
the issue of jurisdiction; and (2) finally decided the issue of jurisdiction. See Ex parte Lanier Worldwide, Inc., 922 So. 2d 115, 119-120 (Ala. Civ. App. 2005). If the Alabama court finds that jurisdiction
was not lacking in the foreign court, it must give full faith and credit to the foreign
judgment. However, where an Alabama court determines the issue of jurisdiction was
not fully and fairly addressed by the foreign court, it will then make its own determination
as to whether jurisdiction existed before the foreign court. See Ex parte Lanier Worldwide, Inc., 922 So. 2d at 120-21. See Feore v. Feore, 627 So. 2d 411, 413 (Ala. Civ. App. 1993).
Under Alabama law, there is a rebuttable presumption that the rendering court had
jurisdiction, and the courts place the burden of overcoming that presumption on the
party challenging jurisdiction. Further, Alabama courts have recognized that a defendant
in a civil action is free to ignore judicial proceedings, and then challenge a default
judgment on jurisdictional grounds in a collateral proceeding. See Package Express, Inc., 957 So. 2d at 1141. A default judgment entered by a Georgia court based on a failure
to file a proper response does not amount to a binding waiver of a personal jurisdiction
defense. See Lanier Worldwide, Inc. v. Crum, 976 So. 2d 451, 453-54 (Ala. Civ. App. 2007). See Feore, 627 So. 2d at 413. Since NH is deceased, he could not now challenge the presumption
that Georgia had jurisdiction over him. Under these circumstances, an Alabama court
might conclude that the presumption of the Georgia court’s jurisdiction remains intact.
Thus, an Alabama court might afford the Georgia court’s order full faith and credit.
Such a finding might bind NH, were he still alive.
However, to determine the impact of the Georgia order on the Agency, we considered
Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c, through which the Agency adopted as national
policy the rationale from Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973). In Gray, the Sixth Circuit held the Commissioner is not free to ignore a state court determination on a domestic relations issue when the
state court had jurisdiction over the issue, the issue was “genuinely contested” by
parties with opposing interests, and the decision was consistent with the law set
forth by the highest court in the state.
While an Alabama court might be required to defer to the Georgia court order, SSR
83-37c provides the Agency would not. SSR 83-37c does not require that the Agency
defer to the Georgia order because it does not appear that the issue of paternity
was “genuinely contested” in the Georgia proceeding. NH did not appear in that proceeding
and it appears the court made its findings based on solely the allegations in Claimant’s
complaint. See, e.g., George v. Sullivan, 909 F.2d 857, 861 (6th Cir. 1990) (finding divorce proceedings were not “genuinely
contested” under the Gray v. Richardson standard where the proceeding was conducted in chambers, there was no indication
evidence was presented or a controversy was resolved, and though the defendant appeared,
he was pro se and did not object to the finding); Winters v. Sec’y of Health of Human Servs., 1989 WL 280323, *2 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 11, 1989) (finding issue was not “genuinely contested”
as contemplated by Gray, where the court’s finding was based on one-sided evidence presented in an ex parte proceeding). Thus, the Agency is not bound by the Georgia court’s order.
We also note that the Georgia court order does not establish a parent-child relationship
under § 216(h)(3)(C) of the Act. Under section 216(h)(3)(C), the child must show that,
during the putative father’s lifetime: (1) the putative father acknowledged in writing
that the child is his son; (2) a court decreed the putative father to be the father
of the child; (3) the putative father had been ordered to contribute to the support
of the child; or (4) the putative father is the father and was living with or contributing
to the support of the child at the time the putative father died. While the Georgia
order in this case appears on its face to satisfy (2) and (3), the order would not
be entitled to deference in accordance with SSR 83-37c, as explained above.
Based on the above, we believe that the Georgia order does not establish paternity.
Very truly yours,
Mary A. S~
Regional Chief Counsel
Assistant Regional Counsel