TN 14 (03-14)

PR 05005.050 Vermont

A. PR 14-054 Validity of Vermont Marriage between Siblings RE: Felicia SSN ~ (title II), ~DI (title XVI)

DATE: February 11, 2014

1. SYLLABUS

The marriage between the Claimant and NH is not a valid marriage under the Vermont law. The applicant is domiciled in Vermont and for Title II purposes; we look to the Vermont state law to determine if the courts in the state would find the applicant and the insured to be married at the time the application was filed. The Vermont law prohibits marriage between siblings, and past court decisions have interpreted siblings to include “half-siblings”. The marriage between the Claimant and NH also cannot be considered a “deemed marriage” under the Social Security Act. There are no circumstances under which Claimant and NH could be legally married as half-siblings in the state of Vermont. The marriage was prohibited by law and considered invalid from inception based on the family relationship between the two parties.

2. OPINION

Issues:

(1) Is the marriage between Felicia and her half-brother Walter, Jr., valid under the laws of Vermont? 

(2) If not, can the marriage between Felicia and her half-brother Walter, Jr., be considered a “deemed marriage” for purposes of title II of the Social Security Act?

Short Answer

(1) No – Vermont law prohibits marriage between siblings, and past court decisions have interpreted siblings to include “half-siblings”.

(2) No – the marriage between Felicia and Walter would not have resulted in a valid marriage but for a procedural defect, as required to establish a “deemed marriage” for title II purposes. The marriage was prohibited by law and void from the outset based on the family relationship between the two parties.

Background

On July 6, 2013, numberholder Felicia married numberholder Walter, Jr., in Bennington, Vermont. Walter is Felicia half-brother, a fact that she claims to have discovered only after the marriage.  She has provided a sworn statement to the Social Security Administration (SSA), dated December 19, 2013, indicating that she was unaware of her kinship to Walter prior to entering the marriage, and that after learning of their relationship, she continued to be a part of the marriage. Felicia is entitled to title II childhood disability benefits (CDB) and she currently receives title XVI benefits. Walter has applied for title II disability benefits on his own record, and has also filed for title XVI benefits. Both claims are currently pending a medical decision.  The Center for Programs Support has asked whether their marriage is valid under Vermont law, and if not, whether it can be considered a “deemed marriage” for title II purposes.

Applicable Law

Section 216 of the Social Security Act (the Act) sets forth the applicable definitions for determining family status under the Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h). As relevant here, the Act explains that an applicant is the wife or husband of an insured individual for title II purposes if the courts in the state in which the applicant is domiciled at the time the application is filed would find the applicant and the insured to be married at the time the application was filed. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(a). 

Alternatively, the applicant and the insured individual shall be “deemed” to be in a valid marriage if:

such applicant in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with such 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(h)(1)(B)(i) (emphasis added).

The governing regulations mirror the language in section 216, but provide additional interpretive detail. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.345, 404.346. Section 404.345  explains that the laws of the state where the insured was domiciled at the time of the application will determine whether the applicant is a wife or husband of the insured. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Section 404.346 reiterates that a “deemed valid marriage” requires that the applicant went through a marriage ceremony in good faith and that the ceremony “would have resulted in a valid marriage except for a legal impediment.” See 20 C.F.R. § 404.346.  The regulation explains that a “legal impediment” “includes only an impediment which results because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony or because there was a defect in the procedure followed in connection with the intended marriage.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a) (emphasis added). In turn, the regulation provides as an example of a “defect in the procedure” a circumstance in which a marriage was performed through a religious ceremony in a country that requires a civil ceremony for a valid marriage. Id.  

Analysis

(1) The marriage between Felicia and Walter is not a valid marriage under Vermont law. 

Felicia and Walter were domiciled in Bennington, Vermont at the time Walter protectively filed his application for benefits on October 8, 2013.  Vermont law expressly prohibits marriage between a person and his or her “parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, sibling, sibling’s child, or parent’s sibling.” See Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 1a (2013). Though “sibling” is not defined in the Vermont statutory provisions relating to marriage, Vermont cases have interpreted “sibling” to mean “half-siblings” in criminal cases involving prosecutions for intermarriage or fornication by persons prohibited to marry. See Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § 205. Vermont law makes it a crime punishable by fine or imprisonment to intermarry or fornicate with a person whom that person is prohibited to marry under Vermont law. See id.  The Vermont Supreme Court held in a decision from 1887 that the “sibling” provision of the intermarriage criminal statute included siblings of the “half-blood”. See State v. Wyman, 8 A. 900, 901 (Vt. 1887).  The decision has not been overturned or circumscribed. The interpretation of “sibling” as including “half-blood” siblings arises from ecclesiastical law and its subsequent adoption into English common law.  That interpretation was adopted and incorporated by the American colonies. See, e.g., Singh v. Singh, 569 A.2d 1112, 1115-18 (Conn. 1990) (discussing the history of laws prohibiting marriage between relatives and explaining the widespread agreement that a relationship “of the half blood [was to be treated] like that of the whole blood.”); see also Commonwealth v. Ashley, 142 N.E. 788 (Mass. 1924) (discussing English common law origins of prohibition on marriage between relatives and explaining that English common law “treat[ed] the half blood relation like the whole blood.”).  Thus, despite the archaic origin of the Vermont prohibition on marriage between half-blood relatives, the legal authorities are quite clear that, in the context of persons prohibited from marrying, “siblings” includes siblings of the half blood. See W~, 8 A. at 901; S~, 569 A.2d at 1115-18; A~, 142 N.E. at 789. Because the laws of Vermont prohibit the marriage between Felicia and Walter, the marriage is not valid under Vermont law. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. 

(2) The marriage between Felicia and Walter cannot be considered a “deemed marriage” under the Social Security Act.

When an applicant for benefits is not validly married under the laws of the applicable state, the Social Security Act provides an alternative method for “deeming” the parties to be married for purposes of the Act. The Act explains that SSA will “deem” the parties married when

such applicant in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with such 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(h)(1)(B)(i) (emphasis added).

The Agency’s interpreting regulation of this provision provides additional guidance, explaining that “legal impediment” “includes only an impediment which results because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony or because there was a defect in the procedure followed in connection with the intended marriage.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a) (emphasis added). The marriage between Felicia and Walter is not invalid because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony. Thus, for their otherwise invalid marriage to be a “deemed” marriage for purposes of the Act, the marriage must be invalid only because of a legal impediment unknown to the applicant at the time of the marriage ceremony. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(B)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). The governing regulation explains that the legal impediment must arise “because there was a defect in the procedure followed in connection with the intended marriage” and provides as an example of such a defect a situation where the applicant was married in a religious ceremony in a country that requires a civil ceremony. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). The situation involving the applicant in this case differs materially. There are no circumstances under which Felicia and Walter could be legally married as half-siblings in the state of Vermont. See Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 1a (2013). Even if they strictly followed every law, regulation, and rule to effectuate a legal marriage in Vermont, as half-siblings, their marriage is expressly prohibited by law, and indeed, punishable as a crime. Id.; Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § 205; W~, 8 A. at 901. The facts of their case are very sympathetic – it is undoubtedly a very disturbing and disruptive event to learn only after the ceremony that your spouse is your half-sibling. Unfortunately for the applicant, the negative effects of this relationship extend to the realm of Social Security law.  The marriage between Felicia and Walter cannot be considered a “deemed marriage” for purposes of title II of the Social Security Act. 

CONCLUSION

The marriage between Felicia and Walter is invalid under the law of the State of Vermont, and cannot be considered a “deemed marriage” for purposes of title II of the Social Security Act.

Frank Cristaudo
Acting Regional Chief Counsel

By:__________________________
Sean Santen
Assistant Regional Counsel


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PR 05005.050 - Vermont - 03/20/2014
Batch run: 03/20/2014
Rev:03/20/2014