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).