TN 23 (01-18)

PR 01805.054 West Virginia

A. PR 18-025 Do Claimants Qualify for Mothers Benefits and Surviving Children's Benefits when Number Holder Terminated His Rights

Date: December 8, 2017

1. Syllabus

We believe that West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, would extend its holding that the termination of parental rights completely severs the parent-child relationship to matters involving intestate succession.

In this case, the Circuit Court issued an Order that the number holder’s (NH) parental rights as to the child claimants were terminated. As part of that Order, the Court explicitly found that the child claimants would have no right of inheritance from the NH’s estate. Therefore, we believe that the child claimants and their mother do not qualify for surviving children’s insurance benefits and divorced mother’s benefits, respectively, on the NH’s record.

2. Opinion

QUESTION PRESENTED

You asked us to determine if the claimants, A~ and her two children, T~ and B~, qualify for divorced mother’s benefits and surviving children’s insurance benefits, respectively, on the record of C~ (NH), considering the implications of West Virginia intestacy law, where the NH terminated his parental rights with respect to T~ and B~ prior to his death.

CONCLUSION

We believe that West Virginia law would not recognize a parent-child relationship for intestacy purposes between the NH, on the one hand, and T~ and B~, on the other hand, following the termination of the NH’s parental rights, and thus does not allow T~ and B~ to inherit from the NH through intestacy. Therefore, we believe that A~ and her two children, T~ and B~, do not qualify for divorced mother’s benefits and surviving children’s insurance benefits, respectively, on the NH’s record.

BACKGROUND

A~ married the NH on September XX, 1995. Two children were born during that marriage, T~, who was born on November XX, 1995 and B~, who was born on November XX, 1999. A~ and the NH divorced on November XX, 2002.

On December XX, 2005, A~ petitioned the Circuit Court of M~ County, West Virginia for a hearing on the relinquishment of the NH’s parental rights as to T~ and B~. On January XX, 2006, the NH executed a lengthy statement relinquishing his parental rights as to T~ and B~. On January XX, 2006, the Circuit Court of M~ County, West Virginia issued an Order that the NH’s parental rights as to T~ and B~ were terminated. As part of that Order, the Court found that T~ and B~ would have “no right of inheritance from [the NH’s] estate.” The Order also explicitly stated that the NH would have no child support obligation. There is no evidence as to whether T~ and B~ were subsequently adopted, or if A~ remarried.

The NH remarried J~. He died in August 2011, while domiciled in West Virginia.

In September 2011, J~ applied for surviving child benefits for two children, N~ and A2~, and mother’s benefits for herself. Those applications were approved.

A~, filed for benefits for two children, T~ and B~, and divorced mother’s benefits for herself in November 2012. Those claims were also approved.

Thereafter, in a December XX, 2012 letter to the Wheeling, WV Social Security Office, J~ protested T~, B~, and A~’s entitlement to benefits on the NH’s account.

DISCUSSION

To qualify for child’s insurance benefits on the earnings record of an insured individual who has died, a claimant must be that individual’s “child.” See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(d);

20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a)(1). A claimant can qualify as the insured individual’s natural child if the claimant could inherit from the insured individual as his or her child. See Act § 216(h)(2)(A);

20 C.F.R. § 404.355(a)(1), (b). To determine if a claimant could inherit from the insured individual the Social Security Administration applies the intestacy laws of the state where the insured had his permanent home when he died. See Act § 216(h)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R.

§ 404.355(a)(1), (b)(1). Because the NH was domiciled in West Virginia when he died, we look to West Virginia law to determine whether T~ and B~ could inherit from the NH as the NH’s children. See Act § 216(h)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.355 (b)(4).

Divorced mother’s benefits are only permitted under certain circumstances, but at the very least an individual must be an unmarried former spouse of a deceased number holder, who has in her care the insured’s child or children, who are entitled to surviving child’s or children’s benefits. 20 CFR 404.340. Thus, if T~ and B~ could inherit from the NH as the NH’s children under West Virginia law, then A~ may be entitled to divorced mother’s benefits.

Neither the West Virginia’s intestacy code nor cases interpreting the code specifically address whether a child may inherit from a parent following the termination of parental rights where the child is not subsequently adopted. West Virginia intestate law more broadly provides that a child may inherit from her parent if a parent-child relationship exists between them. See W. Va. Code § 42-1-3a (permitting a decedent’s descendants to inherit from the decedent through intestate succession); W. Va. Code § 42-1-1(5) (defining a descendant of an individual as all his descendants with the relationship of a parent and child as defined by the code); W. Va. Code

§ 42-1-1(26) (defining a parent as “any person entitled to take, or who would be entitled to take if the child died without a will.”). Accordingly, here, the claimants may only inherit from the NH if the parent-child relationship between T~ and B~, on one hand, and the NH, on the other hand, survived the termination of parental rights of the NH.

Under West Virginia law, a parent-child relationship does not survive the termination of parental rights. See In re Cesar L., 221 W. Va. 249 (2007) (finding a biological mother who voluntarily relinquished her parental rights lacked standing to contest a child’s disposition order in an abuse and neglect proceeding); In re A.H., No. 12-462, 2012 WL 4069567 (W. Va. Sept. 7, 2012) (finding a biological father whose rights were involuntarily terminated lacked standing to contest a child’s disposition order in an abuse and neglect proceeding).

In In re Cesar, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia (the state’s highest court) held that “a final order terminating a person’s parental right, as a result of either an involuntary termination or voluntary replenishment, completely severs the parent-child relationship, and as a consequence of such order of termination, the law no longer recognizes such person as a “parent” with regard to the child(ren) involved in the particular termination proceeding.” Id. at 258-59 (further stating that termination of parental rights “relieves such person of all the rights and privileges, as well as duties and obligations, considered to be ‘parental rights’” and “the person who formerly possessed such parental rights loses his his/hers status as the child’s parent”) (emphasis added); In re A.H., 2012 WL 4069567 at *3-4 (applying In re Cesar to cases involving involuntary termination of parental rights). Although In re Cesar addresses a parent’s standing to contest a dispositional order in an abuse and neglect case, we believe that West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals would extend its broad and sweeping holding that the termination of parental rights completely severs the parent-child relationship to matters involving intestate succession.

We note that in a context not involving intestate succession, West Virginia law allows one parental obligation – child support – to survive termination of parental rights unless the support obligation is explicitly ended in an order. See W. Va. Code § 49-4-802 (2015) (stating “[t]he [child] support obligation shall automatically continue beyond the termination of the payor’s parental rights, unless the support obligation is explicitly ended in an order); In re Stephen Tyler R., 213 W. Va. 725, 742-43 (2003) (internal citations omitted) (upholding a dispositional order in an abuse and neglect case that simultaneously terminates a parent’s parental rights and requires the same parent to continue paying child support; and explaining that child support payments are “exclusively for the benefit and economic interest of the child” and “[a]bove all, ‘[c]ases involving children must be decided not just in the context of competing sets of adults’ rights, but also with regard for the rights of the children’.”). This exception does not affect the intestate succession analysis because child support obligations generally do not continue after the payor’s death. See Scott v. Wagoner, 184 W. Va. 312, 316 (1990) (holding a court has the authority to enforce a child support obligation as a lien against the deceased obligor’s estate only if compelling equitable considerations are present).

In addition, here A~ petitioned the Circuit Court of M~ County, West Virginia for a hearing on the relinquishment of the NH’s parental rights as to T~ and B~. And, the Circuit Court of M~ County, West Virginia issued an Order that the NH’s parental rights as to T~ and B~ were terminated. As part of that Order, the Court explicitly found the NH had no child support obligations to T~ and B~ and that T~ and B~ would have “no right of inheritance from [the NH’s] estate.”

Thus, we believe that the NH severed his parental rights with T~ and B~ such that the parent-child relationship was terminated and T~ and B~ no longer have the right to inherit via intestacy from the NH under West Virginia law. Accordingly, we believe that T~ and B~ do not qualify for surviving children’s insurance benefits on the NH’s record, and A~ does not qualify for divorced mother’s benefits on the NH’s record.

Nora Koch

Regional Chief Counsel

By: Stuart Weiss

Assistant Regional Counsel


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PR 01805.054 - West Virginia - 01/19/2018
Batch run: 01/19/2018
Rev:01/19/2018