TN 3 (11-08)

PR 04805.024 Massachusetts

A. PR 09-017 Relationship of Applicants to Deceased Number Holder, James E~

DATE: November 5, 2008

1. SYLLABUS

The State court order was not contested and the facts do not support a finding that the claimant met New Hampshire's statutory requirements to be deemed a common-law spouse. There is no documetary evidence that a religious or any other type of marriage ceremony occurred in New Hampshire. Under SSR 83-37c the court order is not binding on the Agency. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the claimant and NH went through a valid ceremonial marriage in Massachusetts, the State of the deceased's permanent home, when he died. There was no good faith attempt to enter into a valid and State-sanctioned marriage.

2. OPINION

You have requested our opinion on whether the New Hampshire Probate Court document decreeing a common law marriage between the deceased, James E~, and the applicant, Renee K~ is legal, whether the 1987 ceremonial marriage between the deceased and applicant meets the regulatory definition to constitute a marriage for entitlement to widow's benefits, and whether the child of the applicant can be considered a step-child of the deceased for the purpose of receiving surviving child benefits. For the following reasons, we believe that the Probate Court's finding is not binding on the Agency. We also believe that the 1987 ceremonial marriage does not meet the regulatory requirements to constitute a valid marriage to establish entitlement to widow's benefits or step-child's benefits.

Factual Background

On April 8, 2008, Ms. K~ petitioned for surviving spouse's benefits for herself, and surviving child's benefits for her adopted son, Daniel K~. Ms. K~ claims that she married the deceased number holder as of May 1, 1987, by common law in New Hampshire, which has been affirmed by the Probate Court of New Hampshire.

Analysis

1. Legality of Probate Court Order

Your first question is whether the Probate Court Order, issued on August 9, 2000, finding that Ms. K~ is the common-law spouse of the decreased number holder, Mr. E~, is legal and binding on the Agency. Pursuant to Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c, the Agency need not always accept a state court order in a proceeding in which the Agency was not a party. Rather, the Agency will accept the state court order only if the issue before the court was genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests, and the court's order is consistent with the law enunciated by the state's highest court.

Here, the issue of the existence of a common-law marriage was not contested in the Probate Court. Further, the facts do not support a finding that Ms. K~ met New Hampshire's statutory requirements to be deemed a common-law spouse.

First, while Ms. K~ claims that she and Mr. E~ shared a religious ceremony in 1982, she was not officially divorced from her husband, Mr. K~, until June 7, 1983. We would also note that we have no information to validate the claim that a religious ceremony took place in 1982, since Ms. K~ failed to provide a specific date, location, or any other corroborating evidence.

Ms. K~ also claimed in her Petition to the Court that she and Mr. E~ shared a family life, and raised two children, Yuri K~ and Daniel K~. Mr. E~, however, is not listed on Daniel K~'s adoption decree, dated June 28, 1989.

Ms. K~ further asserted in her Petition that she and Mr. E~ owned property together in Danbury, New Hampshire as joint tenants with right of survivorship. Ms. K~, however, has failed to present any documentary evidence demonstrating that she and/or Mr. E~ owned property in New Hampshire.

Lastly, Ms. K~ did not meet the requirements to be deemed legally married in New Hampshire. New Hampshire does not recognize common-law marriage but the state will, after the death of one of them, deem a couple to have been legally married if they were competent to contract marriage, cohabitated and acknowledged each other as husband and wife, and stayed in the relationship for three years. All of these events must have occurred while they were domiciled in New Hampshire. GN 00305.075 and N.H. Rev. Stat. 457:39. Pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. 21.6-a, domicile is a location that is designated by an individual as his principal place of physical presence for the indefinite future to the exclusion of others.

Here, there is no evidence that either Mr. E~ or Ms. K~ intended to make New Hampshire their principal place of residence. This is evidenced by the fact that while Ms. K~ reported to the Social Security Administration that she may have resided in New Hampshire for an extended period between 1988 and 1990, she lists her residence as Cambridge, MA on the June 1989 adoption decree for Daniel K~. Mr. E~'s 1999 Death Certificate also lists both his residence and Ms. K~'s as Cambridge, MA. Further, Mr. E~ did not hold Ms. K~ out as his wife, as on his death certificate he is listed as "never married."

Therefore, as there is no documentary evidence that a religious or any other type of marriage ceremony occurred in New Hampshire, that either Mr. E~ or Ms. K~ lived or owned property in New Hampshire, or that either party was ever domiciled in New Hampshire, the Probate Court's Order finding that a common-law marriage existed is not binding on the Agency.

2. Significance of 1987 Ceremonial Marriage

Your second question is whether the ceremonial marriage in 1987 meets the criteria in the regulations to constitute a marriage for entitlement to widow's benefits. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.345, to determine an applicant's relationship as the insured's widow, the Agency must look to the laws of the state where the insured's permanent home was when he died. The regulations define a permanent home as the true and fixed home of a person, the place to which he intends to return when absent. 20 C.F.R. § 404.303.

Under this regulatory section, Mr. E~'s permanent home when he died was in Massachusetts. There is no evidence that Mr. E~ and Ms. K~ were validly married in Massachusetts, as Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox's stated that while she performed a religious ceremony in 1987, she did not solemnize the marriage under Massachusetts law. Therefore, since Massachusetts does not recognize common-law marriage, Ms. K~ does not meet the definition for an insured widow.

The 1987 ceremonial marriage also does not meet the regulatory requirements for a deemed valid marriage. Pursuant to the regulations, an individual will be deemed to be a wife if in good faith she went through the marriage ceremony with the insured that would have resulted in a valid marriage except for a legal impediment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). In the present case, however, there is no evidence that Ms. K~ or Mr. E~ attempted to enter into a valid marriage. As was discussed above, the rabbi made no attempt to solemnize the relationship under state law, and thus there was no good faith attempt to enter into a valid and state-sanctioned marriage.

3. Status of Daniel K~

Your third question is whether Daniel K~ can be considered a step-child of the deceased number holder for the purpose of receiving surviving child's benefits. A child may be eligible for benefits if, after his birth, his natural or adoptive parent marries the insured. 20 C.F.R. § 404.357. The marriage between the natural parent and the insured must be valid under state law unless the union meets the requirements for a deemed marriage under section 346(a). Id.

Here, Ms. K~, Daniel's adoptive mother, was never married or deemed married to the insured. For this reason, Daniel K~ is not eligible for surviving child's benefits.

Conclusion

For the reasons discussed above, we believe that the Probate Court's finding that a common-law marriage existed is not binding on the Agency. We also believe that the 1987 ceremonial marriage does not meet the regulatory requirements to constitute a valid marriage to establish entitlement to widow's benefits or step-child's benefits.


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PR 04805.024 - Massachusetts - 11/21/2008
Batch run: 01/27/2009
Rev:11/21/2008