PR 04805.040 Oklahoma
A. PR 00-063 Effect of Recent Appellate Court Decision Reversing Prior Finding of Common-Law Marriage — Charles J. M~, SSN ~
DATE: January 22, 1999
Under Gray v. Richardson, SSA may not ignore the decision of the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals on the existence of a common-law marriage where: 1. the Court had jurisdiction; 2. its decision is consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State; and 3. the issue was genuinely contested and falls within the domestic relations law category.
(The Supreme Court of Oklahoma requires "clear and convincing" evidence to establish a common-law marriage.)
NOTE: In the 1st sentence, the 4/98 decision was issued by the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, not the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
In a memorandum of September 23, 1998, Richard J. G~, Regional Commissioner, Denver, asked about the effect of an April 1998 Oklahoma Supreme Court decision on benefits currently being paid in this case to the stepchildren of the deceased number holder, Charles J. M~. Mr. G~ also asked if reopening under administrative finality would be appropriate. In our opinion, the court decision affects the original determination that Priscilla W~'s children were the stepchildren of the deceased. Furthermore, we believe that reopening under administrative finality is appropriate in this case.
In November 1995, a state district court found that a common-law marriage existed between Priscilla W~ and the deceased number holder, Charles J. M~. Based on this district court decree, the Social Security Administration (SSA) paid the lump sum death payment to Priscilla W~ and survivor benefits to her three children as stepchildren of the deceased. In April 1998, however, an Oklahoma appellate court reversed the district court decision and held that Priscilla W~ had failed to establish that a common-law marriage existed between herself and the deceased. The appellate decision is a final order because the parties did not appeal it to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. As you may be aware, SSA is not free to ignore an adjudication of a State court under certain circumstances even where the Commissioner is not a party to the suit. The four prerequisites requiring action by SSA are: (1) an issue in a claim for social security benefits previously has been determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction; (2) this issue was genuinely contested before the State court by parties of 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 Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1307, 1373 (6th Cir. 1973); SSR 83-37c.
In this case, the question of whether a common-law marriage existed between the deceased number holder and Priscilla W~ was an issue in a social security benefits claim. Such issue has been determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction, that is, the Court of Civil Appeals, State of Oklahoma, Division Four.
The issue was genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests and falls within the domestic relations law category. Finally, the resolution by the court was consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State, in that the appellate court held that Priscilla W~ had not proved a common-law marriage by "clear and convincing" evidence. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma requires "clear and convincing" evidence in order to establish a common-law marriage. In re Estate of Stinchcomb, 654 P.2d 26, 29 (1983). Therefore, all the Gray prerequisites are met, and SSA may not ignore the appellate court's decision which held that Priscilla W~ failed to establish a common-law marriage. Since a common-law marriage did not exist between Priscilla W~ and the deceased, her children are not his stepchildren.
Furthermore, SSA should consider the appellate court's decision to be new and material evidence received within four years of the final determination. Accordingly, reopening the original determinations concerning the common-law marriage and the relationship of Priscilla W~'s children to the deceased is appropriate. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.988(b), 404. 989(a)(1) (1998).