You asked whether Y~ and A~ were parties to a valid marriage for purposes of A~’s
entitlement to Surviving Mother With Child in Care benefits or Disabled Widow’s Benefits,
based on Y~’s earnings record. We conclude that due to their relationship as uncle
and niece, A~ was not a legal spouse, deemed spouse, or putative spouse of Y~ at the
time of his death. As such, the parties did not have a valid marriage and A~ is not
entitled to program benefits on Y~’s earnings record.
Y~ married A~ on June XX, 2013. The parties were related as uncle and niece, but they
did not disclose this fact in seeking their marriage license. Y~ died on April XX,
2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
On May XX, 2015, A~ filed a claim for Surviving Mother With Child in Care benefits
on the record of Y~. A~ further inquired about her future eligibility for Disabled
Widow’s Benefits. She also filed a claim for her son, J~, as the stepson of Y~.
A~ is not entitled to program benefits on the record of Y~ because she was not his
legal, deemed, or putative spouse at the time of his death.
To be entitled to Surviving Mother With Child in Care or widow’s benefits, a claimant
must meet the relationship requirements of the Social Security Act. See Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 01310.001; RS 00208.001; RS 00207.001(A)(1)(a). A claimant can meet those relationship requirements by either having been
the legal spouse, putative spouse, or deemed spouse of the number holder at the time
of his death. POMS RS 00207.001(A)(1)(a).
First, the Act provides that a claimant is the legal spouse of an insured individual
if “the courts of the State in which such insured individual is domiciled . . . would
find such that such applicant and such insured individual were validly married. .
. at the time he died.” 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i).
Second, the Act permits the Commissioner to find a “deemed marriage” where an applicant
in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with the insured individual resulting
in a purported marriage between them which, but for a legal impediment not known to
the applicant at the time of such ceremony, would have been a valid marriage. 42 U.S.C.
§ 416(b)(1)(B)(i), POMS GN 00305.055.
Third, the Act allows a finding of a “putative marriage” if the courts of the State
in which the insured is domiciled would determine that the applicant could inherit
a widow’s share of the insured’s personal property if he died without leaving a will.
42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(ii); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
Here, A~ was not the legal spouse, deemed spouse, or putative spouse of Y~ at the
time of his death, and thus she is not entitled to benefits on his earnings record.
1. A~ was not the legal spouse of Y~ because their marriage was void.
First, A~ was not the legal spouse of Y~ because their marriage was void. A void marriage
is a marriage “which is legally nonexistent from the beginning under State law, with
or without a judicial decree.” POMS GN 00305.125(A). Parties who enter into a void marriage are considered never to have been husband
and wife. Id. As such, a void marriage requires no formality to terminate. Id.
For purposes of determining the validity of marriage, we look to the law of the state
where the insured had a permanent home when he died. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Permanent
home is defined as “the true and fixed home (legal domicile) of a person. It is the
place to which a person intends to return whenever he or she is absent.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.303. Here, the death certificate indicated that Y~ died in Indiana. The marriage
license reflected that they were married in Indianapolis. A~ reported that Y~ moved
to Indiana from New York in 2012. She stated that he traveled back and forth from
Indianapolis to New York, where he had his own apartment. Despite his travel, the
bulk of the evidence reflects that Y~’s true and fixed home was Indiana at the time
of his death. As such, we apply Indiana law.
Under Indiana law, a marriage is void if “the parties to the marriage are more closely
related than second cousins.” Ind. Code Ann. § 31-11-8-3. This encompasses the relationship of uncle and niece. However, in certain cases,
Indiana allows marriages of relatives more closely related than second cousins. Such
a marriage is not void if: (1) the marriage was solemnized after September 1, 1977;
(2) the parties to the marriage are first cousins; and (3) both of the parties were
at least sixty-five (65) years of age when the marriage was solemnized. Ind. Code Ann. § 31-11-8-3. The marriage here does not meet the requirements of sections two and three. Y~ and
A~ were uncle and niece, rather than first cousins. Additionally, only Y~ was over
65 years old at the time the marriage was solemnized, rather than both parties being
over age 65 as required by the statute. Thus, the marriage was void at the outset
and without any legal proceedings. See Ind. Code Ann. § 31-11-8-1. A~ does not meet the relationship requirement for benefits
because she was not the legal spouse of Y~ at the time of his death.
2. A~ was not the deemed spouse of Y~ because she did not meet the requirements of
42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(B)(i).
Second, A~ does not meet the relationship requirement for benefits because she was
not the deemed spouse of Y~ at the time of his death. In order to be considered a
deemed spouse under federal law, the evidence must show that A~ went through the marriage
ceremony in good faith with no knowledge, at the time of the ceremony, of any legal
impediment that would invalidate the marriage. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)B); 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.346(a); POMS GN 00305.055(A)(1).
A~ cannot be considered the deemed spouse of Y~ because their legal impediment was
not one of those listed in the Social Security regulations. The regulations specify
that the only qualifying legal impediments are either (1) a previous marriage that
had not ended at the time of the ceremony or (2) a defect in the procedure followed
with the intended marriage. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a); POMS GN 00305.055(A)(1) (emphasis added). Here, the legal impediment was the uncle-and-niece relationship
between the parties. This is not one of the legal impediments listed in the regulations,
and thus A~ is not entitled to benefits as the deemed spouse of Y~. See POMS GN 00305.055(B)(3)(b) (“When the marriage is invalid for reasons under State law other than those
listed in a. above, do not apply the deemed marriage provision.”).
3. A~ was not the putative spouse of Y~ under 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(ii).
Finally, A~ was not the putative spouse of Y~ at the time of his death. Under the
laws of some states, a good faith party to a void marriage may acquire inheritance
rights as a spouse. This relationship is considered a putative marriage. POMS GN 00305.085(A)(1); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345. Social Security regulations provide that a
putative marriage occurs where there “is a good faith belief in the existence of a
valid marriage at its inception and . . . good faith until the worker dies.” POMS
GN 00305.085(A)(1); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345. The POMS further explains that a “marriage
may be invalid because of some defect of which the putative spouse was unaware, such
as a prior undissolved marriage of one of the parties, or failure to meet the requirement
of solemnization.” POMS GN 00305.085(A)(1). A putative marriage permits a widow to share in the distribution of the number
holder’s intestate personal property, and thus satisfy the relationship requirement
The Indiana intestate succession statutes provide that a decedent’s surviving spouse
is entitled to a share of the decedent’s intestate estate. Indiana Code Annotated
(West 2015) (Ind. Code Ann.) § 29-1-2-1(b). The term “surviving spouse” is not defined
in the Indiana probate code. See Ind. Code Ann. § 29-1-1-3 (Definitions). Nor does the probate code contain provisions
allowing for inheritance by a putative spouse. Although some states have enacted statues
that adopt putative marriage, Indiana is not one of them. See Ind. Code Ann. §§ 29 (Probate), 31 (Family Law and Juvenile Law); POMS GN 00305.085; Christopher L. Blakesley, The Putative Marriage Doctrine, 60 Tul. L. Rev. 1, 60
(1985); 55 C.J.S. Marriage § 44.
We could find no Indiana cases allowing a putative spouse of a void marriage to share
in the distribution of intestate personal property. Indiana abides by the general
rule that a “void marriage is good for no legal purpose,” and has held that its invalidity
may be shown in any court, between any parties, either in the lifetime of the ostensible
husband and wife or after the death of either or both of them. See Wiley v. Wiley, 123 N.E. 252, 255 (Ind. Ct. App. 1919). In Wiley, the court noted that if the ostensible marriage was void, then the purported wife
would have no interest in the estate. Id. at 254. Accordingly, A~ is not entitled to benefits as the putative spouse of Y~.
For the above reasons, we conclude that A~ does not meet the relationship requirements,
and thus she is not entitled to program benefits on the record of Y~ .
Acting Regional Chief Counsel, Region V
By: Cristen Meadows
Assistant Regional Counsel