You asked whether a proxy marriage registered in Chiapas, Mexico in 1989 is recognized
as a valid marriage by the State of California.
Proxy marriages were valid in Chiapas, Mexico in 1989, and thus, recognized as valid
in the State of California in 1989. However, in this case, we recommend that you determine
the exact date of the proxy marriage between the claimant and the insured.
We also recommend that you develop whether the claimant and the insured were married
or divorced at the time of the insured's death. The claimant filed an application
for widow's benefits as the surviving spouse. However, the death certificate reports
the insured's marital status as divorced with no surviving spouse listed. The file
contains a report of contact indicating that the claimant had not been living with
the insured for approximately four years prior to his death. The file also shows that
the insured began receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments in 2001, the
year he died. We recommend that you check what he indicated as his marital status
on his SSI application. Also, we recommend that you ask the claimant what she indicated
as her marital status on her federal and state income tax returns for the four years
preceding the insured's death. If the claimant and the insured were divorced at the
time of his death, she may qualify as the insured's surviving divorced wife.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Eugene R. M~ was born on February 14, 1944, and died on November 11, 2001 while domiciled
Dolores C~ was born on September 22, 1943, in Los Angeles, California.
Records in the file indicate that Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ were married by proxy in Tuxtla
G~, the capitol city of the State of Chiapas, Mexico in 1989. Specifically, the official
marriage certificate was signed by Judge Lauro S. M~, and issued by the "Officina
del Registro del Estado Civil - Tuxtla Gtz., Capital del Estado de Chiapas" (Civil
Registry) on August 2, 1989. The receipt of the registration of the marriage is dated
September 23, 1989. The official English translation of the marriage certificate,
which states that Eugene R. M~ and Dolores C~ were validly married in Chiapas, was
also signed by Judge M~ and issued by the Civil Registry on October 2, 1989. The official
English translation describes the marriage of Ms. C~ and Mr. M~, but does not specifically
indicate the date of the marriage. The English translation reference "Book Records
number 1989" and page 874.
Although there appear to be several inconsistencies regarding the date of the C~-M~
marriage, it appears most likely that there may have been a clerical error in the
original marriage certificate, such that the date was erroneously noted as "August"
rather than "October" 1989. In that case, it would appear that Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ completed
the paperwork to register their marriage in Chiapas on September 23, 1989 and then
had their proxy marriage registered in the Civil Registry on October 2, 1989 (as reflected
in both the original and English translation of the marriage certificate).
Alternatively, it may be possible that the proxy marriage of Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ was
properly registered in the Civil Registry on August 2, 1989, but that a receipt for
the registration of the marriage certificate was not issued until September 23, 1989
(i.e., the registration paperwork was completed prior to August 2, 1989 though the
receipt for the paperwork was not provided until September 23, 1989). Thereafter,
Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ may have requested an English translation of the original marriage
certificate, registered on August 2, 1989 and issued on October 2, 1989. Thus, the
October 1989 date referred only to the date on which the translated copy of the marriage
certificate was issued, and not the date on which Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ were actually
The death certificate shows that Mr. M~ was divorced with no surviving spouse listed.
Mr. M~' son is listed as the "Informant" on the death certificate. There is a report
of contact indicating that Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ were not living together at the time
of his death and had not been living together for approximately four years.
Mr. M~ began receiving SSI payments in 2001, the year he died.
Ms. C~ initially applied for benefits in September 2004, but re-filed for benefits
on June 8, 2006, when the Agency could not locate her file.
Section 216(c)(1)(E) of the Social Security Act defines "widow" as the "surviving
wife of an individual, but only if . . . [among other requirements not pertinent here]
she was married to him for a period of not less than nine months immediately prior
to the day on which he died." See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(1) (2007); Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00207.001(A)(1), (C)(2).
Section 216(d)(1) of the Act defines "surviving divorced wife" as "a woman divorced
from an individual who has died, but only if she had been married to the individual
for a period of 10 years immediately before the date the divorce became effective."
See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.336; POMS RS 00207.001(A)(2), (B)(2).
The determination of a claimant's marital status is governed by the laws of state
in which the insured individual was domiciled at the time of his death. Section 216(h)(1)(A)(i)
of the Act; 20 C.F.R. § 404.345; POMS RS 00207.001(C)(1)(a). Here, the insured died while domiciled in California.
Under California law, the validity of the marriage between Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ would
be evaluated with reference to the law of Chiapas, the place in which the marriage
was contracted. Ca. Fam. Code. § 308 (stating that "marriage contracted outside this
state that would be valid by the laws of the jurisdiction in which the marriage was
contracted is valid in this state"), formerly Cal. Civ. Code § 4104; see Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00305.005(B) (Determining Marital Status) (validity of a marriage generally determined by the
law of the place where it occurred); see also U.S. v. Sacco, 428 F.2d 264, 268 (9th Cir. 1970) (stating the general rule that "validity of a
marriage is determined by the law of the state where it took place"); Colbert v. Colbert, 28 Cal. 2d 276, 280 (Cal. 1946) (stating that "ordinarily, the law of the place
of marriage controls the question of its validity"). Thus, under California law, the
proxy marriage between Ms. C~ and Mr. M~, which occurred in Chiapas in 1989, will
be considered valid if it is valid under the laws of Chiapas.
The validity of proxy marriages in Chiapas is governed by the Chiapas Civil Code (Code),
which was enacted on February 5, 1938. According to POMS PR 03140.238 (Mexico) (specifically PR 80-001), proxy marriages were valid under laws of Chiapas
A translation of the relevant articles of the 2005 version of the Code indicates that
proxy marriages are valid, as follows:
Article 40. "The Civil Registry will establish the format and characteristics for
the acts and certifications that use special conventions to complete all the information
referred to in this code [law]. Failure to follow the rules of the Civil Registry
will result in a nullity of the attempted action."
Article 83. "In the place, day, and time designated for the celebration of marriage,
there should be present before the official of the Civil Registry, the applicants
or their special agent as established in the form present in Article 40 of this code
and two witnesses for each one of them that can establish their identity."
"The official of the civil register reads aloud the petition of marriage, the documents
that they have presented with diligent practices and interrogation of the witnesses
concerning whether the applicants are the same persons that are referred to in the
petition. In the affirmative case, the official will ask each of the applicants if
they are voluntarily joining in marriage and if they have agreed to join together
in name of the law and of the petition, directing an exhortation to finalize the marriage."
Article 48. "When the interested persons cannot participate personally before an official
of the Civil Registry, they may request that someone be present to replace them or
to represent them as a special agent for the act. In this last case, the mandate will
be granted by means of public writing."
Article 49. "The witnesses that take part in the acts of the Civil Registry must be
of legal age and preference is given to the parents and to those with a designated
interest who can establish the name, age, residence and nationality of the parties."
Article 79. "The two witnesses must be of legal age, know the applicants, and attest
that there are no legal impediments to marry. If there are not two witnesses that
know both applicants, the applicants must present two witnesses each."
Article 249. "Marriage has in its favor the presumption of being valid; it shall be
considered null only when so declared by order."
Comparison of the relevant articles in the 2005 version of the Code, as shown above,
to those of the 1989 version of the Code reveals that the articles are identical,
with the exception of the language of Article 40 which is slightly different but imparts
the same meaning. Additionally, based on our research, including discussions with
legal librarians who are experts in Latin American jurisprudence, significant legal
provisions in the Code tend to remain constant over time. This is consistent with
the notation in the file indicating that proxy marriages were valid in Chiapas from,
at least, 1938 through January 1979, which we note overlapped with the issuance of
revised Codes in 1975, 1982, and 1986. Additionally, our research did not uncover
any evidence showing that proxy marriages were invalid in Chiapas at anytime since
enactment of the Code in 1938. Accordingly, it appears that proxy marriages were considered
valid under the Code, as originally enacted in 1938 (per POMS PR 03140.238), and as amended in 1989 and 2005. Furthermore, we may assume that proxy marriages
were continuously valid in Chiapas from 1938 through 2005, and likely to the present
In conclusion, the proxy marriage of Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ in Chiapas in 1989 was valid
under the laws of Chiapas at that time. Accordingly, California law would recognize
that Ms. C~ and Mr. M~ were validly married in 1989.
A valid marriage in California is dissolved by the death of one of the parties or
by a judgment of dissolution of marriage. Cal. Fam. Code § 310. Here, the death certificate
shows that Mr. M~ was divorced at the time of his death and no surviving spouse is
We recommend that you check what Mr. M~ listed as his marital status on his SSI application,
and what Ms. C~ listed as her marital status on her federal and state income tax returns.
If they were divorced when he died, she does not qualify for widow's benefits as the
surviving spouse, but she may qualify as a surviving divorced spouse if she meets
the 10-year marriage requirement.