TN 7 (02-11)

PR 01320.014 Hawaii

A. PR 11-052 Validity of order setting aside Adoption Decree under Hawaii law Number Holder - Fale T~ Claimants - Tyson T~ and Tyrone T~

DATE: January 25, 2011

1. SYLLABUS

The order granting a biological mother’s petition to set aside an adoption decree is valid under Hawaii law because it appears to meet all of the requirements of the Hawaii statute governing adoption decrees.  The order is also valid under agency regulations and policy. 

2. OPINION

QUESTION PRESENTED

You asked whether a Hawaii state court validly entered an order granting a biological mother’s petition to set aside an adoption decree. 

SHORT ANSWER

Yes, the order setting aside the adoption decree (order) is valid. 

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Tyson T~ and Tyrone T~ (claimants) were born in March 1995 and September 1996, respectively. Mary O~ (O~) is the claimants’ biological mother, and Fale T~ (number holder) is their paternal grandmother.

On December 15, 1999, The parties executed the adoption decree on August 31, 1999, but did not file it until December 15, 1999. In the court’s entry of judgment, the court referred to the decree by its December 15, 1999 filing date.

In the State of Hawaii, the claimants’ paternal grandparents legally adopted the claimants with O~’ consent. In September 1999, the claimants began receiving child benefits on the number holder’s retirement insurance benefits record. Because the claimants became eligible to receive child benefits through the number holder in September 1999, it seems the claimants may have applied for benefits before the parties filed the adoption decree in December 1999.

 Thereafter, the number holder, as representative payee for the claimants, received benefits on behalf of the claimants for 10 years, from 1999 to 2009.  In 2009, the agency suspended benefits for failure to submit a representative payee accounting form. 

On August 30, 2000 -- within a year of the adoption -- O~ petitioned the Hawaii family court to set aside the adoption. In an affidavit accompanying her petition, O~ attested that she had consented to the adoption because she was experiencing financial difficulties and was pregnant with her third child.  However, despite the adoption decree and her attempts to transfer the claimants to their paternal grandparents, neither the number holder nor the paternal grandfather assumed care, custody, or control of the claimants.  O~ stated that the claimants continued to live with her and that she continued to support them. The number holder and paternal grandfather obtained legal counsel and challenged the petition.  The court considered the petition, memoranda submitted by counsel, reports of a Guardian Ad Litem, and arguments presented at a hearing held on September 7, 2001. 

On October 17, 2001, finding good cause, the family court granted O~’s petition and set aside the December 15, 1999 adoption decree.  Thereafter, the paternal grandparents requested reconsideration. The judge denied their motion but granted them visitation rights based on their stipulation with O~.

In early 2010, the agency made contact with O~ and learned that, since 2002, she had lived with the claimants in New Zealand.  O~ informed the agency that the claimants had returned to Hawaii only once, in 2008, for a three-week visit. In August 2010, O~’s attorney provided copies of O~’s petition to set aside the adoption decree, the order setting aside the decree, the stipulation regarding visitation, and the other documents referenced above. We rely upon this evidence in reaching our conclusion.

DISCUSSION

At issue is whether the order setting aside the adoption is valid.  The limited question presented to us is whether the order is valid and does not seek a legal opinion as to the related entitlement issue. We have therefore limited our discussion to the validity of the order and have not considered entitlement issues. To help answer that question and to provide a bit of context, some background information may be helpful. 

The Social Security Act (Act) allows a child to obtain Social Security benefits as a dependent of a number holder. Social Security Act §§ 202(d)(1), 216(e); 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(d)(1), 416(e); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350 - 404.368 (2010) (Child’s Benefits). Such a child may obtain “child’s benefits” based on the number holder’s old age or disability benefits, if the child is:

  • The number-holder’s (natural, legal, step, grand, step-grand, or equitable) child;

  • Dependent on the number holder;

  • Unmarried; and

  • Under age 18.

Social Security Act §§ 202(d)(1), 216(e); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350 (a); 404.355-359. 

In order to receive child’s benefits as a grandchild of the number holder, the natural parents must be deceased or disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.358(a). Here, O~ attested in her petition that, since September 1, 1999, she had worked approximately 30 hours per week as a waitress.  The claimants could not qualify for child benefits as grandchildren since O~ was neither deceased nor disabled.

If a grandchild is legally adopted by a grandparent-number-holder, the regulations provide that the child must satisfy the requirements of a “legally adopted child.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.358(b). Under the regulations, an adoption order must be issued by a court of competent jurisdiction within the United States. 20 C.F.R. § 404.362(b).  The regulations instruct the agency to apply the laws of the state where the adoption took place to determine whether the child is a “legally adopted child.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.356.

Since a legally adopted grandchild is considered a “legally adopted child” under the regulations, the claimants would have qualified for benefits, not as grandchildren, but as “legally adopted children” of the number holder. Accordingly, the applicable regulation sections are 404.356 (who is the insured’s legally adopted child) and 404.362 (when a legally adopted child is dependent). 

Since the adoption took place in Hawaii, the adoption laws of the State of Hawaii apply. 20 C.F.R § 404.356. Hawaii Revised Statutes section 578-12 governs the setting aside of an adoption decree and permits a court to set aside an adoption for good cause within one year from the date of entry of the adoption decree.

Section 578-12 provides:

At any time within one year from the date of entry of any decree of adoption, the court may, for good cause, set aside or modify the decree and, in connection therewith, may make appropriate orders, concerning the custody of the minor child and the disposition and handling of the record of adoption by the department of health. The setting aside or modification of any decree of adoption shall not affect any property rights which have become vested between the date of the entry of the decree or the effective date of the decree and the effective date of any order setting aside or modifying the decree of adoption.

No decree of adoption shall be subject to attack in any collateral proceeding, and, after the expiration of one year from the date of its entry, no decree of adoption shall be subject to direct attack upon any ground other than fraud rendering the decree void as of the time of its entry.

Haw. Rev. Stat. § 578-12 (West, Westlaw through 2010 Sess.). 

To summarize, section 578-12 permits the court to set aside an adoption if:

  • Within one year of the date of entry of the adoption decree;

  • The court finds good cause to set aside the adoption decree; or

  • After the one-year period, the court finds fraud, making the decree void.

Section 578-12, read literally, seems to require the court to act within the one-year limitations period (i.e., to find good cause within the one-year period).  Hawaii courts, however, have interpreted the statute to require only that a petition to set aside the adoption be filed within the one-year limitations period. See e.g., In re Male Minor Child, 619 P.2d 1092, 1097 (Haw. Ct. App. 1980) (stating that the statute “provides that a decree of adoption may not be attacked after the expiration of one year from the date of its entry” upon any grounds, other than fraud).

Therefore, whether the limitations period of section 578-12 was satisfied in this matter depends on whether the petition attacking the adoption was timely filed -- that is, whether the petition attacking the adoption decree was filed within one-year of the date of entry of the adoption decree. Haw. Rev. Stat. § 578-12 (West, Westlaw through 2010 Sess.). 

The pertinent dates are:

  • August 31, 1999                Adoption decree executed               

  • December 15, 1999              Adoption decree filed                          

  • August 30, 2000                Petition attacking adoption filed

Although section 578-12 does not define “date of entry,” Hawaii Rules of Appellate Procedure, Rule 4 defines “date of entry” as “when it is filed in the office of the clerk.”  Thus, the “date of entry” of the adoption decree, here, is December 15, 1999, the date the adoption decree was filed. Based on this date of entry, O~ had until December 14, 2000, to petition the court to set aside the adoption decree.  Since O~ filed the petition on August 30, 2000, she filed it well within the one-year limitations period. However, even assuming that the “date of entry” was August 31, 1999 -- the date O~ executed the Adoption Decree -- O~ still filed the petition within the one-year limitations period. Applying either date, then, the petition was timely under the statute.

The only remaining issue is whether O~ satisfied the good cause requirement of section 578-12. Hawaii Revised Statutes § 578-12, allows an adoption decree to be attacked outside the oneyear limitations period if the court finds fraud. Since O~ petitioned the court within the one-year period, the fraud aspect of section 578-12 is not relevant. The Hawaii Supreme Court explained that the determination of good cause under section 578-12 “rests in the exclusive judgment and discretion of the judge.” In re Watson, 361 P.2d 1054, 1058 (Haw. 1961). 

Here, the order contains an express good cause finding. Given the broad latitude provided family courts in these matters, as articulated in Watson, the express good cause finding is sufficient to satisfy the good cause requirement of section 578-12.  However, even if more were required, the factual allegations underlying O~’s petition would satisfy the good cause finding.  Namely, that the number holder and paternal grandfather failed to assume custody, care, and control of the claimants, in spite of the adoption decree and attempts by O~ to transfer care of the claimants, appears to amply support the family court’s good cause finding.

Because the order satisfies both the limitations period and the good cause requirement of Hawaii Revised Statutes, section 578-12, the order is consistent with the relevant provisions of Hawaii law as interpreted by the Hawaii Supreme Court.  As such, it complies with the provisions of Social Security Ruling 83-37c, which cites Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973), and holds that the agency is bound by a state court adjudication if:

  1. An issue in a Social Security claim has previously been determined by a state court;

  2. The issue was genuinely contested by opposing parties;

  3. The issue falls within domestic relations law; and

  4. The resolution is consistent with the law of the highest court of the state. 

In this matter, the state court adjudication meets all four requirements, as follows:

  1. The issue (whether the claimants are the legal children of the number holder) has been previously determined by a Hawaii Court;

  2. The number holder and paternal grandfather contested O~’s petition;

  3. The issue falls within domestic relations law; and

  4. The order is consistent with state law, including Hawaii Revised Statutes, section 578-12.

Thus, the order is both valid under Hawaii law and binding upon the agency under Social Security Ruling 83-37c. Nonetheless, the order setting aside the adoption would not nullify any valid establishment of child benefits occurring between the effective date of the adoption and the order setting aside the adoption. See Haw. Rev. Stat. § 578-12 (stating that the setting aside of any decree of adoption shall not affect any property rights which have become vested between the date of the entry of the decree and the effective date of any order setting aside the decree of adoption).  However, although not related to the limited question of the validity of the set-aside order, the facts presented in this matter suggest that the claimants’ benefits may not have been validly established and that the number holder may have been overpaid for the entire period that she received dependent benefits on behalf of the claimants. See e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 404.360 (explaining that one of the requirements for entitlement to child benefits is proving dependence on the insured, which may include showing that at a specific time the child lived with the insured or the insured contributed to the child’s support); POMS GN 02205.007 (providing that representative payees are solely liable for repayment if the benefits were not used for the support and maintenance of the beneficiary). 

CONCLUSION

The order is valid under Hawaii law because it appears to meet all of the requirements of the Hawaii statute governing adoption decrees.  The order is also valid under agency regulations and policy. The agency should take appropriate steps to recover the overpayment to the number holder.

The parties executed the adoption decree on August 31, 1999, but did not file it until December 15, 1999. In the court’s entry of judgment, the court referred to the decree by its December 15, 1999 filing date.

Because the claimants became eligible to receive child benefits through the number holder in September 1999, it seems the claimants may have applied for benefits before the parties filed the adoption decree in December 1999.

The limited question presented to us is whether the order is valid and does not seek a legal opinion as to the related entitlement issue.  We have therefore limited our discussion to the validity of the order and have not considered entitlement issues.

However, even assuming that the “date of entry” was August 31, 1999 -- the date O~ executed the Adoption Decree -- O~ still filed the petition within the one-year limitations period.  Applying either date, then, the petition was timely under the statute.

 Hawaii Revised Statutes § 578-12, allows an adoption decree to be attacked outside the oneyear limitations period if the court finds fraud.  Since O~ petitioned the court within the one-year period, the fraud aspect of section 578-12 is not relevant.

Nonetheless, the order setting aside the adoption would not nullify any valid establishment of child benefits occurring between the effective date of the adoption and the order setting aside the adoption. See Haw. Rev. Stat. § 578-12 (stating that the setting aside of any decree of adoption shall not affect any property rights which have become vested between the date of the entry of the decree and the effective date of any order setting aside the decree of adoption).  However, although not related to the limited question of the validity of the set-aside order, the facts presented in this matter suggest that the claimants’ benefits may not have been validly established and that the number holder may have been overpaid for the entire period that she received dependent benefits on behalf of the claimants. See e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 404.360 (explaining that one of the requirements for entitlement to child benefits is proving dependence on the insured, which may include showing that at a specific time the child lived with the insured or the insured contributed to the child’s support); POMS GN 02205.007 (providing that representative payees are solely liable for repayment if the benefits were not used for the support and maintenance of the beneficiary).

If you have further questions about the validity of the order, feel free to contact Assistant

Elizabeth B
Regional Counsel


To Link to this section - Use this URL:
http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/1501320014
PR 01320.014 - Hawaii - 02/08/2011
Batch run: 02/08/2011
Rev:02/08/2011