BASIC (10-04)

PR 05105.018 Iowa

A. PR 04-176 Reply to Request For State Law Regarding Estoppel in the Context of Marriage

DATE: May 12, 2000

1. SYLLABUS

This opinion discusses the presumptions of marriage and the doctrine of estoppel in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.)

2. OPINION

You have asked what Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska statutes and/or case law provide regarding presumptions of valid marriages, the doctrine of estoppel and in what context it arises, how estoppel applies in the context of bigamous marriages, how the Social Security Administration (SSA) interprets the state's law, and what the POMS provide regarding each state.

ESTOPPEL

MISSOURI:

Missouri statute provides that estoppel must be pled as an affirmative defense. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 509.090 (1999). Case law states that "[i]t is generally recognized that a person may be precluded from attacking the validity of a foreign divorce decree if, under the circumstances, it would be inequitable for him to do so." See Sumners v. Sumners 645 S.W.2d 205, 209 (Mo. App. 1983).

Missouri has applied the doctrine of estoppel in several situations. Equitable estoppel was applied to prevent one spouse from claiming an inheritance or interest in the estate of a deceased spouse. See, e.g., Crane v. Deacon, 253 S.W. 1068, 1072-73 (Mo. 1923). In Littlefield v. Littlefield, 203 S.W. 636 (Mo. App. 1918) the court held that remarriage, perhaps with knowledge that her divorce was invalid, precluded the plaintiff from asserting a claim in her former husband's property. Equitable estoppel prevented a husband from raising a subject matter jurisdiction objection in Yun v. Yun, 908 S.W.2d 787 (Mo. App. 1995).

KANSAS

Kansas statutes address estoppel in the context of premarital agreements. The statute expressly states that "equitable defenses," including laches and estoppel are "available to either party" in a action asserting a claim for relief under a premarital agreement. Kan. Stat. Ann. § 23-809 (1999).

Kansas also applied the doctrine of estoppel in Martin v. Martin, 623 P.2d 527 (Kan. App. 1981). The court stated that a litigant who has acquiesced in the judgment of a trial court by assuming the burden or by accepting the benefits of the judgment cannot thereafter appeal from that judgment, but the rule is not strictly applied in divorce cases. When a divorce is not challenged, the remarriage of the appellant does not constitute acquiescence. Id. at 529-30. The Kansas Supreme Court held in Justus v. Justus, 495 P.2d 98 (Kan. 1972), that the former husband was estopped from challenging the validity of the original divorce decree since he had remarried on the strength of it.

IOWA

Like Kansas, Iowa statute provides for the use estoppel in actions concerning premarital agreements. The statute states, "equitable defenses . . . including laches and estoppel, are available to either party." Iowa Code § 596.11 (1999). Iowa does not require that estoppel be specifically pled so long as the facts lending themselves to the doctrine are in the petition. See Winegard v. Winegard, 278 N.W.2d 505, 510 (Iowa 1979); Dierking v. Bellas Hess Superstore, Inc., 258 N.W.2d 312, 314 (Iowa 1977).

Estoppel prevented a common law husband in Iowa from contesting potential jurisdictional defects in his wife's former divorce several years prior because he had prior knowledge of the defects and in fact had helped his wife obtain the divorce decree in question. See Winegard, 278 N.W.2d at 509-10.

NEBRASKA

Similarly, Nebraska statute provides, "equitable defenses . . . including laches and estoppel, are available to either party." Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 42-1008 (1999).

Equitable estoppel was also applied in Nebraska to bar a putative father from preventing the adoption of the child where the he and the mother discussed adoption, but no agreement was reached and the father failed to comply with statutory provision which required him to file a notice of intent to claim within five days of the child's birth. See Friehe v. Schaad, 545 N.W.2d 740, 748-49 (Neb. 1996).

PRESUMED VALIDITY OF MARRIAGE

In Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa an individual's second marriage is presumed valid absent proper rebuttal evidence.

MISSOURI

Case law in Missouri establishes the presumption of validity for an individual's second marriage. See Sumners, 645 S.W. 2d at 208 citing Carr v. Carr, 232 S.W.2d 488, 489 (Mo. 1950). In situations where a first spouse contests the validity of a second marriage, he or she has the burden of rebutting the presumed validity of the second marriage. The burden of proof is "the most cogent and satisfactory evidence"which is "strong, distinct, and conclusive." See Lucas v. Lucas, 909 S.W.2d 365, 369-70 (Mo. App. 1995), citing Carr, 232 S.W.2d at 489 and Estate of Holloway v. Whitaker, 697 S.W.2d 551, 552 (Mo. App. 1985).

KANSAS

Kansas also presumes a person's second marriage is valid. See Hawkins v. Weinberger 368 F.Supp. 896, 900 (D. Kan. 1973) citing Harper v. Dupree, 345 P.2d 644 (Kan. 1959). Where two purportedly valid marriages are entered into in good faith, the law will presume the second is valid with the burden on the claimant from the first marriage to rebut that presumption. The burden of proof for rebuttal is clear, strong, and satisfactory which is so persuasive that it leaves no room for reasonable doubt. See Chandler v. Central Oil, 853 P.2d 649, 652 (Kan. 1993).

IOWA

In Iowa, there is a strong presumption that the second marriage is valid. The party seeking to rebut the presumption has the burden of proof to present evidence that is strong and persuasive. See Miller v. AMF Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc., 328 N.W.2d 348, 351-52 (Iowa App. 1982); In re Estate of Weems, 258 Iowa 139 N.W.2d 922, 924 (Iowa 1966).

NEBRASKA

Nebraska statute provides that a properly filed marriage license is presumptive of a valid marriage. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 42-116 (1999). When the validity of a marriage is attacked by either of the parties, the other party may file a bill or petition requesting that the marriage be affirmed and upon "weight and sufficiency" of proof, the marriage will be declared valid by a decree or sentence of the court and is conclusive unless reversed on appeal. Neb. Stat. Rev. § 42-120 (1999). The burden of proof is on the party who asserts that the marriage is valid. See In re Estate of McCartney v. McCartney, 330 N.W.2d 723 (1983). A presumption of valid marriage arises upon proof of a ceremonial marriage. See McCartney 330 N.W.2d at 724.

SSA'S INTERPRETATION OF STATE LAW

MISSOURI

SSA has been a party to lawsuits which interpret state law in several cases. In Missouri, SSA's position that the plaintiff was not the wage earner's widow and, thus, not entitled to widow's benefits was upheld. See Everetts v. Apfel, 63 F. Supp. 2d 1020 (E.D. Mo. 1999). In that case, the plaintiff stated that she was first forced into marriage after she became pregnant as the result of rape. However, she never regarded herself as married and the union was annulled, but she married another man prior to the annulment. Therefore, her second marriage was bigamous and void from the beginning. Thus, her second marriage was not valid and she was properly denied widow's benefits. In another case, two women claimed that their children were entitled to survivorship benefits on the deceased's record. The ALJ was ordered to give the first wife the opportunity to present clear and convincing evidence showing that her divorce not valid. See Riley v. Califano, 498 F.Supp. 589 (W.D. Mo. 1980). Riley states that Missouri recognizes the defense of laches to an attack on the validity of a divorce decree. Riley, 498 F.Supp. at 593.

KANSAS

As noted above, in Hawkins, 368 F.Supp 896, SSA properly denied the plaintiff's application for widow's benefits because her alleged husband entered into a subsequent ceremonial marriage with another woman. The husband's second marriage enjoyed the presumption of validity over the plaintiff's previous common law marriage. Id. at 898.

IOWA

In Iowa, in a situation where the couple married, divorced, and ultimately cohabitated again, without another ceremonial marriage, SSA determined that a common-law marriage was established and the wife was awarded widow's benefits upon her husband's death. See Blessing v. Deere & Company, 985 F.Supp. 886, 890 (S.D. Iowa 1997).

NEBRASKA

Because Nebraska requires a six month interlocutory period after a divorce before any subsequent marriage, an applicant who violated that provision was properly denied widow's benefits. See McGuire v. Califano, 440 F.Supp. 1031 (D. Neb. 1977). It was further determined that the ALJ has the power to interpret state law, and the agency is not required to accept the judgment of a lower state court on the issue of widow's status if it appears the state's highest court would take a different position. Id.

POMS

The POMS does not specifically address the issue of estoppel for Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, or Nebraska.

BIGAMOUS MARRIAGES AND ESTOPPEL

With respect to estoppel in the context of a bigamous marriage, all four states have determined that bigamous marriages are void. See Mo. Rev. Stat. 451.030 (1999); Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-3601(1999); Neb. Rev. Stat. § 42-103 (1999); Iowa Code § 595.19 (1999). See also State v. Fitzgerald, 726 P.2d 1344 (Kan. 1986). However, in Iowa, if the parties live together after the death or divorce of the former spouse, the marriage will then be valid. Iowa Code § 595.19 (2) (1999). As discussed above, all four states also apply the doctrine of estoppel.

We hope that this memorandum answers your questions.

Frank V. S~ III
Regional Chief Counsel
By

Pamela J. M~
Assistant Regional Counsel

B. PR 81-010 Frank Louis P~, D/W/E (a/k/a Louis P~ and Lewis P~), ~, ~, ~ - Sarah P~, Claimant for Mother's Benefits, Audrey P~, Claimant for Mother's Benefits — Marriage Presumption

DATE: August 24, 1981

1. SYLLABUS

  1. Marriage—Presumption of the validity of the last of two or more conflicting marriages - Illinois

    Where there are two or more conflicting marriages, the most recent one is presumed to be valid. This presumption may be rebutted by evidence which, standing alone, affords a reasonable grounds for concluding that no divorce has been secured.

    The testimony of a prior wife, together with a search of the divorce records of the husband's places of residence, is found to be sufficient evidence that no divorce had taken place and so rebuts the presumption of the validity of a subsequent marriage.

    In the situation where testimony of the wife is unavailable and the places of residence of the husband were unknown for relevant periods of time so that divorce records could not be examined, the presumption of the validity of a subsequent marriage is not rebutted as there is insufficient evidence to indicate that no divorce had taken place.

  2. Marriage—Putative

    A person is considered a putative wife, i.e., has the same rights as a widow to inherit personal property under State law if (1) there was a marriage ceremony, (2) there was cohabitation, and (3) the spouse entered into the marriage in good faith. The putative relationship exists up until the time the spouse is informed of the prior undissolved marriage. However, should an individual die before his or her spouse is informed of the prior undissolved marriage inheritance rights vest at the time of death.

2. OPINION

This is in reference to your request for our assistance in determining whether either Sarah P~ or Audrey P~ is entitled to mother's benefits on the account of Frank Louis P~. We conclude, for the reasons outlined below, that both claimants are so entitled - Sarah as the wage earner's legal widow and Audrey as his putative spouse under Illinois law. We also conclude that Audrey's entitlement may continue even if she later learns of the wage earner's prior marriage to Sarah.

The relevant facts may be briefly summarized: The wage earner was married at least four times prior to his death on November 16, 1979 in Chicago, Illinois. The first marriage was to Thelma G~ on December 15, 1945 in Columbus, Mississippi. This marriage was a ceremonial marriage. According to the wage earner's father, who lived in Columbus, the wage earner and Thelma separated shortly after their marriage but did not divorce. The wage earner married Eloise S~ on May ll, 1946 in Columbus. This marriage was also a ceremonial marriage. According to the wage earner's father, the wage earner and Eloise separated before the wage earner came to Chicago but never obtained a divorce. It is not clear from either the father's statement or the rest of the record when the wage earner came to Chicago, and there is no evidence of the wage earner's activities between 1946 and 1967.

The wage earner married Sarah F~ on March 9, 1967 in Chicago. In her statement, Sarah alleged that the wage earner never told her about any prior marriage either before they were married or after they were separated in 1968. She also stated that she never divorced the wage earner and was never notified that the wage earner had divorced her. The wage earner married Audrey J~ on July 19, 1974. In her statement, Audrey, also alleged that the wage earner had never told her about any prior marriages. The wage earner listed Audrey as his spouse in an application for disability benefits in 1975. The wage earner and Audrey separated in 1976, and did not divorce prior to the wage earner's death.

The claims folder also indicates that the wage earner had a relationship with an Amanda H~ in Mississippi prior to 1950, but the nature and length of that relationship is unclear. A daughter, Barbara M~, was born in 1949. Both Sarah P~ and Audrey P~ knew Barbara. Sarah alleged that Barbara M~ informed her that the wage earner had been married once before he married Sarah. Barbara M~ did not tell Sarah the name of the first wife, but only that the first wife had divorced the wage earner before he married Sarah. Audrey alleged that Barbara M~~ told her that Audrey was the wage earner's only wife. As for Barbara, she orally stated to the District Office that she did not know anything about the wage earner's marital status. She also stated that he had been married to her mother, Amanda H~ , in Mississippi, although she did not know where or when. She refused to make a written statement or furnish Amanda's address. There is no evidence of a ceremonial marriage between the wage earner and Amanda, nor is there evidence which would establish a valid common-law marriage in Mississippi (which was recognized until 1956).

The evidence therefore indicates that the wage earner was married four times: first, to Thelma G~ in Mississippi in 1945; second, to Eloise S~ in Mississippi in 1946; third, to Sarah F~ in Illinois in 1967; and fourth, to Audrey J~ in Illinois in 1974. Mississippi divorce records checked from 1945 through 1962 indicate no divorce between the wage earner and Thelma or between the wage earner and Eloise. Illinois divorce records checked from 1945 through November 1979 (the date of the wage earner's death) indicate no divorce between the wage earner and Thelma, the wage earner and Eloise, or the wage earner and Sarah. According to the wage earner's father, the wage earner was never divorced from either Thelma or Eloise. Thelma and Eloise apparently cannot be located. Sarah alleges that she and the wage earner were never divorced.

Sarah has filed for mother's benefits and child's benefits for Frank L. P~, born September 12, 1967. Audrey has filed for mother's benefits and child's benefits for Frank T. P~ born March 14, 1973. The entitlement of both children to benefits is not at issue here. You have asked us whether either Sarah or Audrey may be entitled as putative spouses under Section 305 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act of 1977, ILL. REV. STAT., Ch. 40, par. 305 (Smith-Hurd). We must first determine, however, whether either woman may be entitled as the legal widow of the wage earner.

Illinois follows the presumption of the validity of the last of two or more conflicting marriages. Sparling v. Industrial Commission, 270 N.E. 2d 411 (Ill. 1971); Davis v. Califano, 603 F.2d 618 (7th Cir. 1979); Baer v. DeBarry, 175 N.E. 2d 673 (Ill. App. 1971). Thus, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, a previous divorce will be presumed in order to sustain a subsequent marriage. Under this rule, the marriages of the wage earner to Thelma, Eloise, and Audrey are therefore presumed to have terminated in divorce (or death), and his marriage to Audrey is presumed to be valid.

However, the presumption may be rebutted "by evidence which, standing alone, affords reasonable grounds for concluding that no divorce has been secured." Sparling v. Industrial Commission, 270 N.E. 2d at 413. This standard is not a strict one. In Sparling, the Illinois Supreme Court found the presumption rebutted on the basis of the prior wife's testimony, along with the lack of evidence that a divorce had been obtained prior to the deceased's second marriage (although divorce records were not checked). In Davis v. Califano, 603 F.2d 615 (7th Cir. 1979), which involved the claims of the deceased wage earner's two wives to widow's disability benefits, the Seventh Circuit, after examining Illinois law, found that the presumption of the validity of the second marriage was rebutted by the testimony of the first wife and by searches of the divorce records of the wage earner's places of residence, which revealed nothing.

Based on these precedents, we find that the presumption of the validity of the wage earner's fourth marriage to Audrey is rebutted with regard to his third marriage to Sarah. Sarah stated that she never divorced the wage earner nor was she ever notified that the wage earner had divorced her. A search of Cook County divorce records revealed no divorce between the wage earner and Sarah. There is no evidence that either the wage earner or Sarah resided elsewhere from the time of their marriage in 1967 until the wage earner's death. The available evidence thus affords "reasonable grounds" for concluding that no divorce was ever secured between the wage earner and Sarah. Thus, as between Sarah and Audrey, Sarah is the legal widow of the wage earner.

As between the wage earner's marriage to Sarah and his prior two marriages to Thelma and Eloise in Mississippi, however, the presumption of the validity of the marriage to Sarah is not rebutted. While divorce records in Columbus, Mississippi from 1945 through 1962 and in Chicago, Illinois from 1945 through 1979 reveal no divorce between the wage earner and either Thelma or Eloise, the claims file does not indicate the exact whereabouts of the wage earner between 1946 (the date of his marriage to Eloise in Mississippi) and 1967 (the date of his marriage to Sarah). There is also no evidence concerning the residences of either Thelma or Eloise subsequent to the time each separated from the wage earner. While the wage earner's father stated that the wage earner was never divorced from either Thelma or Eloise, this statement is probative only as to the time the wage earner resided in Mississippi. The available evidence therefore fails to afford "reasonable grounds" for concluding that no divorce was secured between the wage earner and either Thelma or Eloise. Accordingly, we conclude that Sarah P~ is the legal widow of the wage earner and is entitled to mother's benefits based on his account.

We must also determine, however, whether Audrey may also be entitled to benefits as the wage earner's putative spouse. Under Section 202(g)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §402(g)(1), an individual is entitled to mother's insurance benefits if she is the "widow" of a fully or currently insured individual and has in her care a child of such individual entitled to a child's benefit. Under Section 216(h)(1)(A), 42 U.S.C. §416(h)(1)(A), an applicant is the widow of a deceased wage earner if she was validly married to the wage earner under state law or if she has the same rights as a widow to inherit personal property under state law. See also 20 C.F.R. §§404.339(a), 404.345; Claims Manual §502(a). l/

Illinois law provides that a person who goes through a marriage ceremony and cohabits with another person in the good faith belief that he or she is validly married to that person is a putative spouse and acquires all the rights of a legal spouse (including the right to inherit) until knowledge of the fact that he or she is not legally married terminates such status and prevents the acquisition of further rights. ILL. REV. STAT. Ch. 40 par.' 305 (Smith-Hurd). We believe that under this provision Audrey is the putative spouse of the wage earner and would therefore be entitled to inherit personal property from his estate. Section 305 sets forth three requirements for the status of putative spouse: (1) a marriage ceremony, (2) cohabitation, and (3) good faith. The wage earner and