The NH was domiciled in Oklahoma at the time of her death, therefore, we look to the
Oklahoma Law to determine the validity of the NH’s marriage to the Claimant. Oklahoma
law presumes the validity of the last marriage, such that earlier marriages are presumed
to have ended in divorce or death absent evidence to the contrary. In this case, the
NH and the ex- spouse were divorced in September 1984. Based on that evidence the
Claimant submitted, we believe the Oklahoma law would recognize that the prior marriage
between the NH and the ex-spouse ended in divorce.
The NH and ex-spouse were not married at the time of the NH’s death. The Claimant
and the NH did not file for divorce and there is no evidence that counters the presumed
validity of the marriage between the NH and the Claimant. The evidence submitted by
the Claimant satisfies the marital relationship requirement to qualify as the NH’s
widower under the Act.
For purposes of V~’s application for widower’s benefits on the number holder L~’s
(NH’s) account, you asked whether a Choctaw County, Oklahoma, District Court (District
Court) docket entry noting the grant of a decree of divorce terminated the NH’s prior
marriage to W~. You also asked whether V~’s later marriage to the NH was valid and
whether W~ or V~ was the NH’s widower under Oklahoma law.
We conclude Oklahoma law presumes the validity of the NH’s last marriage to V~. The
District Court’s docket entry noting the court granted a decree of divorce in September
1984 terminated the marriage between the NH and W~. While the District Court’s docket
entry also notes an Order to Dismiss Case in July 1989, the Court has no further documentation
explaining the Order. We conclude the District Court lacked power to issue such an
Order on its own almost five years after granting the decree of divorce. Thus, we
find insufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of validity of the NH’s marriage
to V~. V~ is the NH’s legal widower under Oklahoma law.
The NH died on December XX, 2014. She was domiciled in Oklahoma at the time of her
death. On May XX, 2015, V~ filed an application for widower’s benefits on the NH’s
account, stating he was married to the NH although they had separated in July 2013. V~ stated neither he nor the NH filed for divorce.
In developing V~’s widower’s benefits application, agency notes indicated that the
agency learned the NH’s death certificate stated she was divorced. The agency contacted the NH’s mother for clarification. The NH’s mother stated the
NH filed a petition for divorce from V~ in the District Court. However, the NH’s mother
stated the NH did not further pursue the divorce from V~ because she found out that
her divorce from an earlier marriage to W~ had never been filed. The NH’s mother suggested
the divorce lawyer never filed the divorce because the NH never paid her lawyer.
The agency contacted the District Court’s office for clarification on the NH’s divorce
from V~ and from W~. Agency notes show that the District Court clerk’s (clerk) statements
to the agency changed over time. Initially, the clerk stated she found a divorce between
the NH and V~. Later, the clerk clarified she found only a petition and summons for
divorce between the NH and V~, but no entry of a final divorce. The District Court clerk advised the agency that she could not find the file for
the NH’s and W~’s earlier divorce. However, the District Court clerk provided the
agency with a copy of its docket sheet showing the NH filed a petition for divorce
from W~ in April 1984, and that the Court granted a decree of divorce in September
1984 on grounds of incompatibility following a hearing both the NH and W~ attended.
The District Court’s docket sheet indicated almost five years later, in July 1989,
that an “Order to Dismiss Case” was filed. The clerk stated she was uncertain what
the docket sheet notes meant
The agency contacted W~, who stated he and the NH were divorced, although he did not
have a copy of the divorce decree. W~ stated he never asked the District Court to
set aside the divorce, and he denied receiving any notice from the court that the
divorce had been set aside. W~ later told the agency he contacted an attorney and
showed the attorney the District Court docket sheet entries. W~ stated the attorney
advised him under Oklahoma law a divorce can only be set aside within 30 days of entry,
and the District Court could not have set aside or dismissed the case almost five
years after entering the divorce. Thus, we assume W~’s position is that he is divorced
from the NH and was not her legal widower upon her death.
1. Entitlement to Widower’s Benefits Under the Social Security Act
A claimant is entitled to widower’s benefits under Title II of the Social Security
Act (Act) if, among other things, he is the widower (widower or surviving husband)
of an individual who was full insured when she died. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(f), 416(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335. For a claimant to establish he
is the widower, the claimant bears the burden of proving the requisite marital relationship
with the insured at the time she died. See 20 C.F.R §§ 404.335, 404.344, 404.345, 404.346, 404.704, 404.723, 404.725, 404.726,
404.727. The agency will determine whether an applicant is an insured individual’s
widower by determining if the courts of the state in which the insured individual
was domiciled at the time of death “would find that such applicant and such insured
individual were validly married” at the time such insured individual died. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345. Thus, in determining the
claimant’s relationship as the insured’s widower, the agency looks to the law of the
state where the insured had a permanent home at the time she died. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345. Permanent home means the
individual insured’s true and fixed home or legal domicile. 20 C.F.R. § 404.303. Because
the NH was domiciled in Oklahoma at the time she died, we look to Oklahoma law to
determine whether the NH and V~ were validly married.
2. Under Oklahoma Law, the Marriage Between the NH and V~ Is Presumed Valid
As noted, your legal opinion request focuses upon whether the NH’s prior marriage
with W~ terminated before the NH’s subsequent marriage to V~. Under Oklahoma law,
parties entering into a marriage must be single, and a marriage in which any party
is still validly married to another is a void marriage. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 43,
§ 3(A); see Whitney v. Whitney, 134 P.2d 357, 359 (Okla. 1942). Thus, it is our understanding that your primary
concern is whether the NH’s marriage to V~ was void because she was still validly
married to W~.
We begin our analysis by recognizing that Oklahoma law presumes the validity of the
last marriage, such that earlier marriages are presumed to have ended in divorce or
death absent evidence to the contrary. See Marcum v. Zaring, 406 P.2d 970, 973 (Okla. 1965); Norton v. Coffield, 357 P.2d 434, 437 (Okla. 1960). The presumption increases in strength with the passage
of time, recognition and acknowledgment of the marriage, and the birth of children.
See Marcum, 406 P.2d at 973; Norton, 357 P.2d at 437. The presumption of the validity of the latest marriage is strong,
but may be rebutted by the person asserting the invalidity of the latest marriage.
See Marcum, 406 P.2d at 974; Norton, 357 P.2d at 437. The strength of the evidence needed to rebut the presumption depends
on the equitable strength of the evidence establishing the last marriage. See Smith v. Barnhart, 2003 WL 893578 at *4 (10th Cir. 2003) (unpublished) (“Oklahoma courts have been
somewhat inconsistent in assessing the burden of proof against the party attacking
the marriage,” but “[t]he consistent rational underlying these different applications,
however, is that the presumption is rebuttable, and the strength of the rebuttal evidence
must mirror the apparent strength of the validity of the marriage.”). The evidence
required to rebut the presumption may be as low as “some, competent evidence sufficient
to eliminate the presumption” (see Puntka v. Puntka, 50 P.2d 1092, 1093 (Okla. 1935)) and as high as “clear, strong, and unequivocal”
evidence (see Norton, 357 P.2d at 439). See id.
As noted, there is little evidence addressing the NH’s latest marriage to V~ from
which we could analyze the equitable strength of the evidence establishing the marriage.
We do not know the length of the marriage, whether any children were born of the marriage,
or whether the community generally recognized the marriage. Nevertheless, we can provide an opinion in this case without further development.
If V~ was the last individual married to the NH, there must, at a minimum, be some
competent evidence to counter the presumption of that marriage’s validity, such as
evidence that the NH and W~ never divorced, which would make the NH’s marriage to
V~ void. Therefore, we next look to whether the NH and W~ validly divorced.
3. Under Oklahoma Law, a Divorce Decree Is Valid When Pronounced
We first consider whether the District Court docket sheet establishes that the NH
and W~ were divorced. Under Oklahoma law, a parties’ divorce is final on the date
the divorce is pronounced. See Alexander v. Alexander, 357 P.3d 481, 485 (Okla. 2015) (“The dissolution of the marriage was effective when
pronounced by the trial court, but would not have been appealable unless it had been
properly filed.”); Bryan v. Bryan, 221 P.3d 146, 150 (Okla. Civ. App. 2009) (“the parties’ divorce was valid and final”
on the “date the trial court announced its ruling and entered its minute order”);
Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, § 127 (time when judgments in divorce actions become final;
effect of appeal); Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 696.2(E) (“A judgment, decree or appealable
order, whether interlocutory or final, shall not be enforceable in whole or in part
unless or until it is signed by the court and filed; except that the adjudication
of any issue shall be enforceable when pronounced by the court in the following actions,”
including “divorce”). Further, a divorce judgment is rendered when pronounced, and the failure to enter
a written memorial of the judgment does not invalidate the judgment. See Pellow v. Pellow, 714 P.2d 593, 595 (Okla. 1986); see also Alexander, 357 P.3d at 484 (“This Court has long held that ‘entry of the written memorial upon
the court’s journal is not essential to the validity of the judgment, and failure
to properly file a journal entry of judgment does not render judgment void.’”) (citing
Pellow, 714 P.2d at 595). In Pellow, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that a divorce was granted on the date the district
court entered a minute order in the docket sheet stating, “divorce granted to both
parties all as per journal entry.” Id. at 595, 597.
Here, the District Court’s docket sheet shows the NH filed a petition for divorce
from W~ in April 1984, and the District Court granted a decree of divorce in September
1984 following a hearing both the NH and W~ attended. The docket sheet states, “Decree
of Divorce Granted on Grounds of Incompatibility.” Because the District Court was
unable to locate the case file, we do not know whether any other written memorial
of the divorce decree existed. However, the minute order on the docket is sufficient
evidence to establish that the NH and W~ were divorced in September 1984, with no
other written memorial required. See Pellow, 714 P.2d at 595, 597. As noted, we find it further significant that W~’s position
is that he validly divorced the NH.
The agency should accept the District Court’s minute order as evidence establishing
the divorce between the NH and W~. Agency policy states that a state trial court decision
does not bind the Commissioner when the agency is not a party. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37C, 1983 WL 31272 (adopting Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1973)). However, the Commissioner must still recognize
a state court adjudication where all of the following prerequisites (prongs) are found:
(1) a state court of competent jurisdiction has determined an issue in a claim for
Social Security benefits; (2) parties with opposing interests genuinely contested
the issue before the state court; (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. Id. Admittedly, there is very little evidence addressing the four prongs under Gray, but it appears all four prongs are sufficiently satisfied in this case such that
the agency should recognize the decree of divorce.
First, a district court in Oklahoma has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear divorce
case (Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, § 101), and the decree of divorce between the NH and
W~ impacts V~’s Social Security benefit eligibility as the NH’s legal widower. Second,
both the NH and W~ appeared in the case as opposing parties. Third, divorce proceedings
are in the general category of domestic relations law. See Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, §§ 101-140; see also Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 716 (1992) (Blackmun concurring) (“‘first’ or ‘core,’ category [of
domestic relations] involves declarations of status, e.g., marriage, annulment, divorce,
custody, and paternity”). Fourth, incompatibility is a proper grounds for divorce
under Oklahoma law. See Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, § 101. Thus, applying Gray, the agency should recognize the District Court’s September 1984 divorce decree between
the NH and W~.
4. Under Oklahoma Law, the District Court Did Not Have Power to Dismiss the Divorce
Next, we consider whether the District Court’s notation in July 1989, “File Order
to Dismiss Case” properly set aside the divorce decree. Under Oklahoma law, a divorce
decree may be appealed, vacated, or set aside. See Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, §§ 990A, 1031; Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, § 133. Final judgments
from a district court may be appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, but any such
appeal must be commenced within thirty days from the date of the judgment. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, §§ 952(b), 990A. A party may also file a petition in the
district court to vacate a divorce decree. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 1031. Generally,
the petition must be filed within thirty days of the judgment. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit.
12, § 1031.1. If more than thirty days has passed, the party must file a petition,
verified by affidavit, setting forth the judgment, the grounds to vacate or modify
it, and the defenses to the action. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 1033. The party must
then serve a summons as in the initial commencement of a civil action. Id. Finally, a district court can set aside its divorce decree at any time. Okla. Stat.
Ann. tit. 43, § 133. However, the district court may only set aside its divorce decree
on petition of both parties, signed by both parties, asking the court to set aside
the divorce. Id. Further, the parties must prove to the court that neither one married a third-party
during the time since the court issued the decree of divorce. Id.
The District Court’s docket sheet does not support any of these means of appealing,
vacating, or setting aside the divorce decree. Indeed, the docket sheet does not indicate
that the NH or W~ took any steps to appeal the divorce decree, such as individually
petitioning the District Court to vacate the divorce decree, or jointly petitioning
the District Court to set aside the divorce decree. There are no docket entries at
all between the September 1984 docket entry granting the divorce decree and the July
1989 docket entry purporting to dismiss the case. The evidence provided does not explain
the effects of the court’s apparent order entered five years after the divorce decree.
Not even the District Court clerk was able to explain what this final docket sheet
entry meant. However, W~ stated he never had the divorce set aside and never received
any notice from the District Court that the divorce was set aside. Although the NH’s
mother seems to suggest the divorce was set aside because the NH did not pay her attorney, we find no legal authority that would grant a district court the power to dismiss
on its own a decree of divorce without notice to the parties. Neither the NH nor W~
suggested she or he filed a petition to set aside the divorce decree. Thus, we do
not believe that the docket entry of an Order to Dismiss the Case made in 1989 properly
set aside the divorce decree the District Court previously entered five years before,
in 1984. Even if we considered the District Court’s docket entry as evidence the court
set aside the divorce decree, we would not be required to recognize the Court’s adjudication
because under the fourth Gray prong it is inconsistent with Oklahoma law, as discussed above.
For these reasons, we conclude the District Court did not validly dismiss the divorce
decree. Under Oklahoma law, the NH and W~ were divorced in September 1984, and no
evidence counters the presumed validity of the marriage between the NH and V~. Because there is no evidence that the marriage between the NH and V~ ended in divorce,
V~ qualifies as the NH’s widower.
We believe Oklahoma law would recognize that the prior marriage between the NH and
W~ ended in divorce. Therefore, the NH’s subsequent marriage to V~ is not void on
the basis that she was married to W~ at the time of her marriage to V~, which we understand
to be the primary focus of this legal opinion request. Under Oklahoma law, there is
insufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of the validity of the marriage between
the NH and V~. Consequently, assuming the agency has sufficient evidence as to V~’s
marriage with the NH, V~ satisfies the marital relationship requirement to qualify
as the NH’s widower under the Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(f), (g), (h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335, 404.345; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.723 (if you apply for widower’s benefits, we will ask you for evidence
of the marriage and where and when it took place), 404.725 (evidence of a valid ceremonial
marriage), 404.726 (evidence of a valid common law marriage).
Regional Chief Counsel
By: James D. Sides
Assistant Regional Counsel