Whether the deceased numberholder's (Carol L. M~'s) adoption of an adult child (Deborah
R. F~) over the age of 21 is legally valid in the state of Montana, and if so, should
whether the Agency should pay M~'s underpaid disability benefits to F~.
We do not have the underlying petition for adoption to determine if it complies fully
with Montana law. And the Decree of Adoption issued by the Montana District Court
suggests that one statutory requirement-a full description and statement of value
of the child's property-may be missing from the petition. Nonetheless, we believe
the Montana Supreme Court would find that the Decree is valid and establishes that
F~ is M~'s legally adopted child, because it complies substantially with Montana's
law on adult adoption. Therefore, at the time of M~'s death, F~ was entitled to her
On November 29, 1995, the Montana Eighth Judicial District Court issued a Decree of
Adoption, declaring F~ to be M~'s child. F~ was 42 years old at the time and M~'s
natural cousin. M~ never married and had no other children. She died on September
20, 2003, and left no estate. Her only source of income at the time of death was SSI.
We do not know whether she was survived by a parent.
In an RSDI Quality Review, the Agency discovered that M~ should have received Social
Security disability benefits beginning in January 1974.
(1) The Adoption's Validity
Whether F~ is M~'s legally adopted child is governed by Montana, the state where the
adoption took place. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.356 (2007). Under Montana law, "[a] petition for adoption filed prior
to October 1, 1997, is governed by the law in effect at the time the petition was
filed." Mont. Code Ann. § 40-16-108 (Refs & Annos 2007). The Decree of Adoption does
not state when M~ filed the petition, but the court issued the Decree on November
29, 1995, and it bears a 1995 case number in the caption. Therefore, we presume M~
filed the petition in 1995.
In 1995, Montana law provided that "the procedure and law for adoption of minors .
. . shall be applicable in proceedings for the adoption of an adult under the provisions
of this part, provided that provisions concerning an investigation . . . and an interlocutory
decree shall not be applicable in the case of the adoption of an adult." Id. § 40-16-108 (1995). Also, unlike a minor, an adult could be adopted in Montana in
1995 without the consent of his or her natural parents. See id. § 40-8-201. Thus, when M~ filed the petition, an adult could be adopted in Montana
under the provisions applicable to the adoption of a child, but without the requirements
of investigation, interlocutory decree, and parental consent.
Under Montana law at the time of Ms. M~'s petition, an unmarried adult over the age
of 18 could adopt a child. See id. § 40-8-106. A child 12 years old or older must consent to his or her adoption in
writing or as the court requires. See id. § 40-8-113. The adoption petition must be filed in the district court for the county
where the petitioner resides. See id. § 40-8-107. The petition must contain the following information: the name and place
of residence of the petitioner; the child's name, place of birth, and date of birth;
a statement by the petitioner that she desires to establish the relationship of parent
and child between herself and the child; and a full description and statement of value
of the child's property. See id. § 40-8-121. Any written consent required should be attached to the petition or submitted
later with the court's consent. M~
The Decree includes the following findings by the court: M~ is a resident of Cascade
County, Montana, and F~ is a resident of Lewis and Clark County, Montana; F~ is M~'s
natural cousin; M~ desires to adopt F~ as her natural child "and is a fit and proper
person to do so"; F~ desires to retain her present married name; "the consent of all
persons required by law has been given in writing and filed with the Court"; and "all
of the allegations of the Petitioner are true." The Court then concludes "it is fit
and proper that the adoption should be granted" and declares that "the relationship
of daughter and parent and all of the rights, duties, and other legal consequences
of the natural relationship of daughter and parent shall thereafter exist between
such adopted daughter and adoptive parent."
Thus, it appears the only requirement the Decree lacks is a full description and statement
of the value of F~' property. This raises the question of whether the Agency should
find the adoption legally valid based on the Decree, even though the Decree does not
show on its face that F~' adoption met all of the statutory requirements.
Generally, the Agency is not bound by the decision of a State court in a proceeding
to which it was not a party. See Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973). Under Social Security Ruling 83-37c, however, certain
State court determinations on domestic relations matters are entitled to deference.
In that Ruling, the Agency adopted the rationale of Gray as its national policy. In Gray, the court held that the Commissioner should defer to a State court's determination
on an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits where: (1) the State court has
jurisdiction over the issue; (2) the issue was contested by the parties with opposing
interests; (3) the issue falls within the general category of domestic relations law;
and (4) the decision was consistent with the law as stated by the State's highest
Here, the State court's adoption decree appears entitled to deference under SSR 83-37c.
The Montana District Court had jurisdiction to grant or deny the adoption petition.
F~ had an opportunity to oppose the petition by withholding consent, but chose not
to do so. The issue falls within the general category of domestic relations.
As to whether the Decree is consistent with decisions of the Montana Supreme Court,
we have found no Montana case law addressing the validity of an adoption decree that
lacks a description of the child's property. However, we believe the Montana Supreme
Court would find the Decree valid because it substantially complies with Montana law.
The primary purpose of adoption statutes is to promote the best interests of the child.
See C.J.S., Adoption § 4 (2003). Montana's requirement that an adoption petition contain a description
of the child's property obviously serves that general purpose. The adoption of adults
is dissimilar to adoption of children, "serving different purposes and creating few
of the problems which arise out of the adoption of children." See Homer H. C~, The Law of Domestic Relations in the United States § 21.10 (West 1987). Since the
purpose of adult adoption is usually to designate an heir, safeguarding the adoptee's
property is not a logical concern in adult adoptions. See id. For example, the Uniform Adoption Act does not require a description of the adoptee's
property in adult adoptions. Rather, it merely requires statements of consent by the
adopting parent and adopted child, basic information about the parties (i.e., names,
marital status, age), and a statement of the nature of the relationship between the
parties. See 21 ALR 3d 1019. Therefore, we believe the development would be required to determine
whether the applying parent was entitled to receive M~'s underpaid benefits under
subsections "c." above. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.370.
For these reasons, under SSR 83-37c, the Agency should defer to the Montana District
Court's judgment on this matter of State domestic relations law and find M~'s adoption
of F~ legally valid, based on the Montana District Court's Decree.
(2) Priority of Payment
You also asked us to consider POMS § GN 02301.030(A), Underpaid Person is Deceased, in relation to this matter. This section of the
POMS provides that if an underpaid beneficiary is deceased, payment must be made under
the following order of priority:
to the surviving spouse who was either living in the same household as the deceased
or who, for the month of death, was entitled to a monthly benefit on the same record
as the deceased beneficiary;
to the child who, for the month of death, was entitled to a monthly benefit on the
same earnings record as the deceased;
to the parent who, for the month of death, was entitled to a monthly benefit on the
same earnings record as the deceased;
to the surviving spouse not qualified under "a" above;
to the child not qualified under "b" above
to the parent not qualified under "c" above
to the legal representative of the decedent's estate.
The child's age is immaterial in deciding whether he or she is entitled to receive
an underpayment. See GN 02301.030(B)(2).
M~ had no surviving spouse, and neither F~ nor one of M~'s parents was entitled to
receive benefits on M~'s account during the month of M~'s death because neither applied
for such benefits . See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(4), 404.370(d). Therefore, with the information that you
have provided, F~ should receive M~'s underpaid benefits under subsection "e" above.
The Agency applies the adoption laws of the state where the adoption took place to
determine whether a person is an insured's legally adopted child. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.356. In this case, the Montana District Court issued a Decree, finding
that M~ satisfied the essential elements required to adopt F~. The Agency should defer
to the Montana District Court's Decree and find the adoption legally valid. Because
F~ is M~'s legally adopted child, the Agency must pay M~'s underpaid benefits to F~.
Deana R. E~-L~
Regional Chief Counsel, Region VIII