Social Security Law
To be entitled to spouse’s benefits under the Social Security Act (Act), a claimant must show, among other things, that he or she is the “husband” or “wife” of an insured NH. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(b), (c), 416(a)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.330. As pertinent here, the Act provides two methods for a claimant to show that he or she is the husband or wife of an insured who is domiciled outside the United States. First, a claimant is the husband or wife of such insured if, among other things, the courts of the District of Columbia would find that the claimant was validly married to the insured at the time he or she applied for benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Second, even if a claimant was not validly married to such insured at the time he or she applied for benefits, he or she will be deemed to be the insured’s husband or wife if, under the law applied by the courts of the District of Columbia in determining the devolution of intestate personal property, he or she would have the “same status” as a husband or wife of the insured with respect to the taking of such property. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
Here, the NH and claimant allege that they have a common-law relationship, not a ceremonial of common-law marriage. Therefore, we do not have to determine whether a valid marriage exists. Instead, we must examine whether the claimant can be deemed to be the insured’s wife in accordance with the Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
Validity of Relationship Under the Law of the District of Columbia
Because the NH resided in British Columbia, Canada, at the time the claimant applied for benefits, we apply District of Columbia law to determine whether the claimant may be considered (deemed) to be the NH’s wife. SSA will deem the claimant to be the NH’s wife, if, under the law applied by the courts of the District of Columbia in determining the devolution of intestate personal property, the claimant would have the “same status” as a widower of the NH with respect to the taking of such property, if the NH were to die. See § 216(h)(1)(A)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Under District of Columbia law, intestate inheritance rights are determined by the law of the decedent’s domicile. Javier v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 407 F.3d 1244, 1247 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing In re Gray’s Estate, 168 F. Supp. 124 (D.D.C. 1958)). As previously noted, the claimant and the NH lived together in British Columbia, Canada. Accordingly, to determine whether this relationship would allow the claimant to have the requisite status as a spouse with respect to inheritance of the NH’s intestate property, we apply the law of British Columbia, Canada.
British Columbia’s Estate Administration Act, and the subsequent Wills, Estates, and Succession Act, which came into force on March 31, 2014, provide the rules for intestate succession. The Estate Administration Act’s definition of spouse included “common law spouse,” which meant either:
A person who is united to another person by a marriage that, although not a legal marriage, is valid by common law, or
a person who has lived and cohabitated with another person in a marriage-like relationship, for a period of at least two years immediately before the person’s death.
Estate Administration Act, S.B.C. 1996, c. 122, pt. 1, available at
http://www.canlii.org/en/bc/laws/stat/rsbc-1996-c-122/104764/rsbc-1996-c-122.html#Part_1_General_498. The Wills, Estates and Succession Act does not refer to “common law spouse,” and instead states, “2 persons are spouses of each other for purposes of this Act if they were both alive immediately before a relevant time and (a) they were married to each other, or (b) they had lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years.” Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13, pt. 2, available at
The expression “marriage-like relationship” is found in a number of British Columbia’s statutes that deal with the rights and obligations of unmarried couples. British Columbia’s Court of Appeal has held that the expression should be interpreted the same across statutes in “all cases where it is used to describe the status of two persons who have chosen to live together in a certain way.” Austin v. Goerz (2007) 74 B.C.L.R. 4th 39, para. 32 (Can. B.C. C.A.), available at https://www.canlii.org/en/bc/bcca/doc/2007/2007bcca586/2007bcca586.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQA0bWFycmlhZ2UtbGlrZSByZWxhdGlvbnNoaXAgY29tbW9uIGxhdyBHb3N0bGluIFRha2FjcwAAAAAB.
Thus it appears that under the law of British Columbia, a partner of a NH in a “marriage-like relationship” would have the “same status” as a widower of the NH with respect to the inheritance of the NH’s intestate personal property. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
The legal test for determining whether a particular relationship is “marriage-like” is whether it was the parties’ subjective intention to be in a “marriage-like relationship.” Gostlin v. Kergin (1986), 3 B.C.L.R. 2d 264, page 5 (Can. B.C. C.A.), available at https://www.canlii.org/en/bc/bcca/doc/1986/1986canlii164/1986canlii164.html. In Gostlin, the Court stated:
If each partner had been asked, at any time during the relevant period of more than two years, whether, if their partner were to be suddenly disabled for life, would they consider themselves committed to life-long financial and moral support of that partner, and the answer of both of them would have been “Yes”, then they are living together as husband and wife. If the answer would have been “No”, then they may be living together, but not as husband and wife.
Id. at 5. However, the Court notes that sometimes ascertaining intention can prove difficult in particular circumstances, in which case objective factors can be relied upon:
Did the couple refer to themselves, when talking to their friends, as husband and wife, or as spouses, or in some equivalent way that recognized a long-term commitment? Did they share the legal rights to their living accommodation? Did they share their property? Did they share their finances and their bank accounts? Did they share their vacations? In short, did they share their lives? And, perhaps most important of all, did one of them surrender financial independence and become economically dependent on the other, in accordance with a mutual arrangement?
Id. at 6.
The Court enunciated additional factors indicating a “marriage-like relationship” in Takacs v. Gallo (1998), 48 B.C.L.R. 3d 265 (Can. B.C. C.A.), available at http://www.canlii.org/en/bc/bcca/doc/1998/1998canlii6429/1998canlii6429.html. In that case, the Court held that courts must focus first on the intentions of the parties to live in a marriage-like relationship, using objective factors to divine those subjective intentions. Id. para. 53. The Court noted that although the parties may not explicitly acknowledge that a marriage-like relationship exists, “conduct speaks louder than words.” Id. para. 40.
Objective factors that may be relevant in determining the parties’ intentions are seldom determinative in and of themselves; many people who live together, and meet many of these objective criteria, do not actually intend or enter the kind of psychological and emotional union generally associated with marriage. Id. para. 55. Therefore, courts must recognize the uniqueness of each relationship and apply a flexible approach when considering the various objective criteria provided in the authorities. J.J.G. v. K.M.A. (2009), 71 R.F.L 6th 349, para. 37 (Can. B.C. S.C.), available at https://www.canlii.org/en/bc/bcsc/doc/2009/2009bcsc1056/2009bcsc1056.html.