TN 5 (09-13)

PR 01705.037 North Dakota

A. PR 13-106 Entitlement of Child Based on Void Marriage in the State of North Dakota NH – Chris – REPLY

DATE: August 7, 2013

1. SYLLABUS

Under North Dakota law, the marriage of a minor over the age of 16 but under the age of 18 requires consent of a parent or guardian to be valid. In this case, the Court found that the minor’s legal guardian had never given consent for her daughter to marry. Therefore, under North Dakota law, the marriage was “void” because the required consent had never been given for the marriage.  Because the marriage was annulled on the basis that is was “void,” the District Court’s annulment means that the marriage never legally existed and the minor was never married. As such, child benefits should be reinstated as of the month that the benefits were originally terminated due to marriage.

2. OPINION

Question Presented

You asked us to provide an opinion on whether the District Court in North Dakota had the authority to void the marriage of Hanna from its inception or whether the District Court’s annulment was only effective as of the date of its Order annulling the marriage. 1

Short Answer

Hanna was 16 at the time of her marriage, and under North Dakota law parental consent was required for her marriage to be considered valid. Consent was never given by Hanna’s mother, Christine , and therefore the marriage was annulled by the District Court in Cass County, North Dakota, in December 2012. By law, Hanna’s marriage was void from its inception because legal grounds never existed for the marriage in the first place. Therefore, her child benefits should be reinstated as of the month that they were terminated due to her marriage.

Although some questions were raised as to whether Hanna was a legal resident of North Dakota at the time of her marriage and whether her mother or grandparents were her legal guardians, no evidence has been presented indicating that Hanna’s legal guardian has ever been anyone other than her mother Christine. The District Court appropriately found that Christine was a resident of North Dakota, and that her minor child Hanna was therefore also a resident of North Dakota, and properly issued its ruling annulling the marriage based on North Dakota law. 

Background

Hanna became entitled to survivor benefits under number holder Chris’s record in March of 2007. Hanna’s benefits were terminated in December 2011 following her marriage to Darwin on December 29, 2011. At the time of her marriage, Hanna was 16 and living in Minnesota with her grandparents.

Hanna’s mother, Christine, filed for an annulment of the marriage between her daughter and Darwin in the District Court of Cass County, North Dakota, in 2012.  The District Court granted an annulment on December 6, 2012, on the grounds that Hanna was not over the age of 18 at the time and her mother had not given her consent to the marriage of her underage daughter.  Under North Dakota law, the marriage of a minor over the age of 16 but under the age of 18 requires consent of a parent or guardian to be valid. The Court found that Hanna’s marriage had taken place without her mother’s knowledge or consent and, therefore, the marriage was void from its inception under North Dakota law. 

The Court also found that Christine was a resident of North Dakota because, although she lived with her parents from time to time in Minnesota, she intended to maintain her residence in North Dakota by maintaining a driver’s license in North Dakota, working in North Dakota, and paying taxes in North Dakota. Because Christine was Hanna’s legal guardian and Hanna was her minor child, the Court found that Hanna was also a resident of North Dakota subject to its laws. 

DISCUSSION

Under the Social Security Act (Act), a child is eligible for child’s insurance benefits on the account of an eligible wage earner if the child is, among other requirements, dependent on the insured, not married, and under the age of 18 (or a full-time student). See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350; Program Operations Manual System (POMS) DI 10115.001 (each outlining the requirements for child’s insurance benefits). Since your question only pertains to child Hanna’s annulled marriage and its effect on her benefits, this analysis focuses solely on this eligibility factor.

A child’s eligibility for insurance benefits ends if the child marries. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)(D); 20 C.F.R. § 404.352(b)(4). However, a child is considered “unmarried” if the marriage is void. See POMS RS 00203.020. A “void” marriage is one which was legally nonexistent from the outset under state law, with or without a judicial decree. See POMS GN 00305.125. If a marriage is void under state law, benefits should be reinstated as of the month that the benefits originally terminated due to the marriage (e.g., as if the marriage never happened). See POMS GN 00305.125. A “voidable” marriage, by contrast, is a marriage which is defective and can be adjudged void, but which is considered valid unless and until declared void by court action. See POMS GN 00305.130. If the marriage is voidable, then the child’s benefits would be reinstated as of the month her annulment decree was entered.  See POMS GN 00305.130. Here, then, the central legal issue to be resolved is whether Hanna’s annulled marriage was a “void” marriage or a “voidable” marriage under applicable state law. 

The District Court of Cass County, North Dakota, issued an Order annulling Hanna’s marriage and as a part of its Order made a number of fact findings relevant to this analysis.  However, the Agency is not automatically bound by the District Court’s Order on these issues.  The Agency is only bound by state court decisions on family law issues where: (1) an issue in the claim for Social Security benefits has been determined by a state court of competent jurisdiction; (2) the issue was genuinely contested before a state court 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. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-27c (adopting Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973)).

Here, the District Court’s Order meets these requirements. First, North Dakota was the appropriate court of jurisdiction to rule on this issue because, as described below, it was the state where Hanna and her mother legally resided at the time of the marriage.  Second, the issues in the case were genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests, because the case caption indicates that Hanna’s mother’s motion to annul the marriage was opposed by Hanna, her alleged husband, and her grandparents. Third, the issues resolved by the state court, namely whether Hanna’s marriage was valid, the parties’ legal residence, and Hanna’s legal guardianship, fell with the general category of domestic relations law. Fourth, as will be described more fully below, the District Court’s order was consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in North Dakota.

North Dakota Century Code § 14-03-02 provides that “if a person is sixteen to eighteen years of age, a marriage license may not be issued without the consent of the parents or guardian, if there are any.” North Dakota Century Code § 14-04-01 provides, in turn, that a marriage may be annulled and a decree of nullity issued if a party to the marriage was underage and required consent and the marriage was contracted without such consent. As described by the North Dakota Supreme Court, “an action for annulment is predicated upon some ground existing at the time the marriage was entered into, and the decree therein in effect declares that a valid marriage never existed.” First Nat. Bank in Grand Forks v. North Dakota Workmen’s Comp. Bureau, 68 N.W. 2d 661, 664 (N.D. 1955), citing Kawabata v. Kawabata, 48 N.D. 1160. In the First National Bank case, the court held that because valid grounds for an annulment existed pursuant to North Dakota statute, it was “as though no marriage ceremony ever took place.” Id. at 665.

 According to your memorandum, Hanna was 16 years old at the time of her marriage. The District Court found that Hanna’s mother was Hanna’s legal guardian, and that she had never given consent for her daughter to marry. Therefore, under North Dakota law, Hanna’s marriage was “void” because the required consent had never been given for the marriage. Because Hanna’s marriage was annulled on the basis that it was “void,” the District Court’s annulment means that her marriage never legally existed and she was never married. As such, according to POMS GN 00305.125, Hanna’s child benefits should be reinstated as of the month they were previously terminated due to her marriage.

Given the District Court’s ruling on the parties’ state of residence and the subsequent letter to the Agency from counsel, some questions were raised as to whether North Dakota law governed this analysis.  Allegations were made that Hanna lives with her grandparents in Minnesota rather than with her mother, and that it was her grandparents that have supported her in the past. However, there are no legal documents indicating that Hanna’s grandparents are her legal guardians to the exclusion of her mother. Absent clear legal proof establishing guardianship in her grandparents, we must rely upon the District Court ruling that found that Christine, Hanna’s mother, is Hanna’s parent and legal guardian.

During the hearing before the District Court, some questions were also raised as to whether Christine, and by extension Hanna, were legal residents of North Dakota and therefore subject to its marriage laws. Again, no evidence has been presented that would indicate that the District Court’s ruling was in error. Given the facts outlined in the Court’s Order – which included findings that while Christine stayed in Minnesota with her parents temporarily, she continued to work and paid taxes in North Dakota – there is no indication that Christine was a resident of any state other than North Dakota, as the District Court found. See Northwestern Mortg. & Sec. Co. v. Noel Constr. Co., 300 N.W. 28, 31-32 (N.D. 1941) (a domicile once established continues until superceded by a new domicile, and the presumption is against a change of domicile). 

The legal residence of the surviving, supporting parent is the domicile of an unmarried minor child. See North Dakota Century Code § 54-01-26(4) (“The residence of the supporting parent during the supporting parent’s life, and after the supporting parent’s death, the residence of the other parent is the residence of the unmarried minor children”). In this case, Hanna was 16 at the time of her marriage to Darwin, and was therefore a minor child considered a resident of the state where her mother resided – North Dakota.  Since under North Dakota law the legal state of residence of an unmarried minor child is the state where her parent and legal guardian resides, Hanna would have been considered a resident of North Dakota even if she lived in Minnesota with her grandparents at the time.

The marriage certificate between Hanna and Darwin was obtained in Maryland and, as such, there was some question as to whether Maryland law might apply to the analysis. However, “it is the policy of [North Dakota] . . . that the validity of marriages prohibited by the laws of this state when contracted outside of North Dakota by residents of this state will be determined according to our laws.” First Nat. Bank in Grand Forks, 68 N.W. 2d at 663. Because Hanna was considered a legal resident of North Dakota at the time of her marriage (as an unmarried minor child of legal resident Christine), North Dakota law governs the analysis even if her marriage took place in Maryland. 

 Conclusion

Hanna’s marriage was void from its inception because she was only 16 at the time of her marriage and never obtained the required parental consent.  Under North Dakota law, which was properly applied in this case by the District Court of Cass County, such a marriage never legally existed. As such, Hanna’s child benefits should be reinstated as of the month that the benefits were originally terminated due to her marriage.

John Jay Lee
Acting Regional
Chief Counsel, Region VIII
By: _________________
Sarah Van Arsdale Berry
Assistant Regional Counsel


Footnotes:

[1]

The court documents and marriage certificate provided indicate that the child’s legal name is Hanna W~ rather than Hanna P~.


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http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/1501705037
PR 01705.037 - North Dakota - 09/13/2013
Batch run: 09/13/2013
Rev:09/13/2013