Whether D~ (Claimant), who previously entered into an underage marriage in North Carolina,
is validly married in New York to number holder O~ (NH) and therefore entitled to
wife’s benefits on the record of the NH.
Under North Carolina law, underage marriages are at most voidable and are considered
valid until declared otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction. In this case,
where Claimant married in North Carolina prior to obtaining the legal age of consent,
a child was born during the marriage, and Claimant lived with her then spouse past
the age of majority, the marriage between Claimant and her then spouse cannot be declared
void. In addition, the parties ratified the marriage by living together after Claimant
reached the age of consent. Thus, Claimant was lawfully married under North Carolina
law. Because Claimant’s North Carolina husband was still living, Claimant and her
North Carolina husband were still lawfully married at the time Claimant and the NH
married in New York. Accordingly, Claimant’s marriage to the NH is void under New
York law on the basis of Claimant’s bigamy. Under the facts of this case, we do not
believe New York courts would recognize the presumption of validity that attaches
to the ceremonial marriage of Claimant and the NH. Regardless, Claimant’s relationship
as a wife of the insured NH can be established under the Social Security Act (Act),
provided the requisite factors for a deemed marriage are met. However, we recommend
further development of the record on the issue of whether claimant acted in good faith
before you reach this conclusion. If an adjudicator establishes a deemed marriage,
then Claimant would be eligible for wife’s benefits on the NH’s account, provided
she meets all other eligibility requirements.
Claimant was born D~ on November XX, XXXX. On November XX, XXXX, a few days before
her 18th birthday, Claimant married J~ in Northampton, North Carolina. Their marriage was
conducted by a justice of the peace. Claimant’s father, who was alive at the time,
did not sign her marriage certificate. Claimant lived with Mr. P~ on and off in North
Carolina from 1963 to 1966, and had a son with him in 1966. Claimant and Mr. P~ separated
and never lived together again after 1966.
Claimant married the NH under the name D~ on November XX, XXXX in Brooklyn, New York. On her marriage license, Claimant indicated that she had never been previously married.
Mr. P~ never remarried, and died on December XX, XXXX in Northampton, North Carolina.
Claimant was listed as his surviving spouse on his death certificate.
Claimant, under the name D~, applied for wife’s insurance benefits on the NH’s record
on June XX, XXXX. During the application process, Claimant stated that she never sought a divorce nor
had the marriage to Mr. P~ formally voided by a court before marrying the NH because
she believed her marriage to Mr. P~ was void. According to Claimant, the North Carolina
Bureau of Vital Statistics informed her that her marriage to Mr. P~ was not “legal”
because she married Mr. P~ while underage and without her father’s consent or signature.
In June 20, 2013 statements to SSA, Claimant stated that she had separated from Mr.
J~ in 1984 and reunited in 2009. They had lived together since 2009. The NH stated
that he moved back in with Claimant in 2008 or 2009. Subsequently, in July 2, 2013
statements, Claimant and the NH stated that they had separated from 1988 to 1993,
and that the NH had returned to live with her in 1993. Both Claimant and the NH currently
live together in New York.
Claimant May Be Entitled for Wife’s Benefits on the NH’s Account as the Deemed Wife
of the NH
Social Security Laws and Regulations Concerning Insured Wife’s Benefits
To qualify for wife’s insurance benefits under section 202(b) of the Act a claimant
must apply for such benefits, be the insured’s “wife,” as defined in section 216(b),
be 62 years-old, and must not be entitled to an old-age or disability benefit based
upon a primary insurance amount that is equal to or larger than the full husband’s
benefit. Act §§ 202(b) and 216(b), 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(b) and 416(b); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.330 and 404.344. Additionally, the claimant’s relationship with
the insured as a wife must have lasted at least one year. Act § 216(b); 20 C.F.R.
To determine whether the claimant qualifies as the insured’s “wife,” we look to the
laws of the state where the insured had a permanent home when the claimant applied
for wife’s benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.344. If the claimant and the insured were validly married under state
law at the time the claimant applied for wife’s benefits, the relationship requirement
will be met. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. The relationship requirement will also be met if
under state law the claimant would be able to inherit a wife’s share of the insured’s
personal property if he were to die without leaving a will. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
If the relationship as the insured’s wife cannot be established under State law as
explained in 20 C.F.R. § 404.345, the claimant may alternatively be eligible for benefits
based upon a deemed valid marriage. Act § 216(h)(1)(B)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a);
see also 20 C.F.R. 404.344. A claimant will be deemed to the wife of the insured if, in good
faith, she went through a marriage ceremony with the insured that would have resulted
in a valid marriage except for a legal impediment. Act § 216(h)(1)(B)(i); 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.346(a). 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. Act §
216(h)(1)(B)(iv); 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). Good faith means that at the time of the
ceremony she did not know that a legal impediment existed, or if she did know, she
thought that it would not prevent a valid marriage. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). Further,
to be entitled to benefits as a wife as the result of a deemed valid marriage, the
claimant and the insured must have been living in the same household at the time she
applied for benefits. Act § 216(h)(1)(B)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(b); Program Operations
Manual System (POMS) GN00305.055 B and C provides definitions of marriage ceremony,
good faith and legal impediment, as well as the development needed for each of these
Claimant’s Marriage To Mr. P~ Was Valid Under North Carolina Law
Under North Carolina law, a valid marriage is created by the consent of a male and
female “who may lawfully marry” to take each other as husband and wife expressed in
the presence of each other and in the presence of a minister or a magistrate, or in
accordance with any mode of solemnization recognized by any religious denomination
or Indian Nation or Tribe.  See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1 (West 2015); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-6 (West 2015) (solemnization without marriage license unlawful;
at least two witnesses to marriage ceremony required); POMS PR 05205.036. North Carolina law provides that all marriages “between a male person under 16 years
of age and any female, or between a female person under 16 years of age and any male
. . . shall be void.” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-3 (West 2015). North Carolina law
also provides that persons over 16 years of age and under 18 years of age may marry
only with parental consent. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §51-2(a1) (West 2015); POMS PR 05205.036. Further, all marriages “between persons either of whom is incapable of contracting
from want of will or understanding, shall be void.” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-3 (West
2015); POMS PR 05205.036. The statutory language in effect at the time Claimant and Mr. P~ were married is
consistent with the current language. POMS PR 05205.036 (citing Ivery v. Ivery, 129 S.E.2d 457, 461 (N.C. 1963) (discussing the statutory language in effect in the
Accordingly, a person under the age of consent lacks capacity to enter into a valid
marriage without parental consent. However, “[n]o marriage followed by co-habitation
and the birth of issue shall be declared void after the death of either of the parties
for any of the causes stated in [N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-3]…except for bigamy.”
See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-3 (West 2015). Given these exceptions, the Supreme Court
of North Carolina has held that “the word ‘void’ used in the statute, will be construed
to mean ‘voidable,’ thus rendering the marriage valid until it has been declared void
by a court of competent jurisdiction in an action directly attacking the validity
of the marriage.” Ivery, 129 S.E.2d at 462 (N.C. 1963); POMS PR 05205.036.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has held that where a marriage is
voidable because one of the parties was underage at the time of the marriage, the
“marriage may be ratified by the subsequent conduct of the parties in recognition
of the marriage.” Ivery, 129 S.E.2d at 462. The parties may ratify the marriage by living together after the
underage participant reached the age of consent. See Sawyer v. Slack, 146 S.E. 864, 865 (N.C. 1929); see also POMS PR 05205.036 (citing N.C. Op. Att’y Gen. Op., 2001 WL 1712684, at *1 (questioning whether underage
marriages can be declared invalid when ratified by cohabitation after the underage
participant reached the age of consent)).
Accordingly, under North Carolina law, underage marriages are at most voidable and
are considered valid until declared otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction.
In this case, where Claimant married Mr. P~ prior to obtaining the legal age of consent,
without parental consent, and a child was born during the marriage, the marriage between
Claimant and Mr. P~ cannot be declared void. In addition, the parties ratified the
marriage by living together after Claimant reached the age of consent. Therefore,
Claimant and Mr. P~ were lawfully married under North Carolina law.
Claimant’s Marriage to the NH Is Not Valid Under New York Law
The Record indicates that claimant and the NH were married by a city clerk in New
York on November XX, XXXX. At that time, Mr. P~ was still alive.
Under New York Domestic Relations Law, a marriage is valid if the parties to the marriage
properly obtain and deliver the marriage license prior to the marriage ceremony, see N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 13 (McKinney 2015), and the marriage is solemnized by a city
clerk. N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 11 (McKinney 2015). Because Claimant and the NH apparently
properly obtained and delivered their marriage license prior to having their marriage
solemnized by a city clerk, New York would normally recognize that Claimant and the
NH entered into a valid, ceremonial marriage on November XX, XXXX.
It is well-established New York law that when a court is confronted with the claim
that a formal second marriage is invalid because of the existence of a valid first
marriage, a strong presumption of validity attaches to the second marriage. See Grabois v. Jones, 89 F.3d 97, 100 (2d Cir. 1996); In re Meehan’s Estate, 150 A.D. 681, 683 (1st Dept. 1912); see also Seidel v. Crown Industries, 132 A.D.2d 729, 730, 517 N.Y.S.2d 310, 311 (3rd Dept. 1987) (stating that “the presumption
favoring the validity of the second marriage is stronger than the presumption that
the prior marriage continued”); POMS PR 05005.035. Furthermore, the presumption of validity of the second marriage becomes “stronger
and stronger where a substantial injustice would be created by invalidating that marriage.”
Grabois, 89 F.3d at 100; see Dolan v. Celebrezze, 381 F.2d 231, 237-38 (2d Cir. 1967) (finding that a review of New York case law
indicates that the presumption favoring the validity of the second marriage varies
in force with the attendant facts and circumstances). The court in Dolan noted that the presumption for validating subsequent ceremonial marriages in New
York operates to effectuate “a particular public policy such as upholding legitimacy,
favoring the participation in the decedent’s estate of one who lived with him as his
spouse, and preserving the validity of a marriage where no strong public policy would
be served by doing otherwise.” Dolan, 381 F.2d at 237; see also Boyd v. Heckler, 588 F.Supp. 31, 34-35 (E.D.N.Y 1984)(stating that “[c]hief among the equities to
be considered is whether there are children of the second marriage” in holding that
testimonial evidence, absence of divorce records, and no children in the second marriage
were sufficient to rebut the presumption of validity of the second marriage for purposes
of awarding widow’s social security benefits) Accordingly, Claimant’s marriage to
the NH is presumptively valid under New York law.
However, it is also well-established that a marriage is void if contracted by a person
whose spouse by a former marriage is living and that former marriage has not legally
been dissolved. See POMS PR 05005.035, Gonzalez v. Gonzalez, 228 N.Y.S.2d 4, 5 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1962). New York Domestic Relations Law states that
“a marriage is absolutely void if contracted by a person whose husband or wife by
a former marriage is living....” N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 6 (McKinney 2015). Furthermore,
because a void marriage exists as a legal nullity, no judgment or judicial declaration
of nullity is required. U.S. v. Diogo, 320 F.2d 898, 907 (2d Cir. 1963); see also McCullen v. McCullen, 162 A.D. 599, 602, 147 N.Y.S. 1069, 1071-72 (1st Dept. 1914). Thus, the presumptive
validity of Claimant’s marriage to the NH may be rebutted, where here, Claimant has
admitted that she was married to Mr. P~ , never sought a divorce from Mr. P~ , Mr.
P~ was alive at the time of her marriage ceremony with the NH, and she was listed
as Mr. P~ ’s surviving spouse on Mr. P~ ’s death certificate.
Here, we do not believe a New York court would find that the balance of equities tips
in favor of validating Claimant’s marriage to the NH. Plaintiff testified that she
never sought a divorce from Mr. P~ . Further, no particular public policy, such as
preserving the legitimacy of children, would be served by validating Claimant’s marriage
to the NH, where Claimant and the NH have no children together , but Claimant has
a child from her first marriage. See Dolan, 381 F.2d at 237. Additionally, the NH is still living, so the policy of favoring
the participation of the putative spouse in the decedent’s estate would not yet be
relevant. Further, voiding the second marriage will not prevent Claimant from obtaining
benefits, as is discussed below.
Claimant’s Relationship to the NH as his Wife Cannot Be Established Through a Common-Law
New York does not recognize common-law marriages entered into in its own state. See Baron v. Suissa, 906 N.Y.S.2d 50, 51 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept. 2010) (citing N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 11). Accordingly,
Claimant cannot alternatively argue that while not validly married to the NH prior
to or after Mr. P~ ’s death, she had nonetheless subsequently entered into a common-law
marriage with the NH under the laws of New York.
Claimant’s Relationship to the NH as his Wife May Be Established Through a Deemed
Another way under the Act that Claimant’s relationship as a wife of the insured NH
can be established is via a deemed marriage. Under section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act,
where a woman and a worker went through a marriage ceremony which resulted in a purported
marriage between them, such purported marriage may be considered a valid marriage
for purposes of section 216(b) if the woman in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with the worker not knowing of a legal impediment
which made the marriage invalid and the legal impediment resulted from the continued
existence of a prior marriage of either party, arose out of the dissolution of the
prior marriage, or from a procedural defect in the woman's ceremonial marriage to
the worker; and she was living in the same household with the worker when her application
was filed. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346; POMS GN 00305.055; Social Security Ruling (SSR) 67-58.
POMS GN 00305.055C lays out the steps the Agency must take to determine whether a relationship is a
deemed marriage. First, for a ceremonial marriage, the Agency must obtain proof of
the marriage. Here, Claimant and the NH have provided proof of a marriage ceremony.
Next, to determine good faith, the Agency must obtain signed statements from all involved
parties, including the claimant and the NH, and the prior spouse if still living.
Claimant’s statement must include why she believed her marriage ceremony was valid
at the time of the ceremony, what she knew of the prior marriage’s dissolution, and
why she did not believe any restrictions for remarrying applied. The NH’s statement
must include information similar in nature to Claimant’s statement. Here, there are
signed statements in which Claimant has repeatedly stated that that she did not believe
her marriage to Mr. P~ to be valid. There is also evidence that Claimant denied having
been married on her marriage license and listed her
maiden name D~ as her surname. However, Claimant not only used the last name P~ to
adopt her grandchildren, but also used it at the time she applied for wife’s insurance
benefits. It is unclear why she would use that name if she thought her previous marriage
was invalid. Additionally, none of the statements indicate what NH knew at the time
of his marriage ceremony to Claimant about her previous marriage to Mr. P~ . In addition
to these factors, the agency must consider Claimant’s age, education, and experience
when determining good faith. POMS GN 00305.055C.
Accordingly, an adjudicator can establish a deemed marriage, assuming the requisite
factors are met. Given the additional development issues required, we defer judgment
to you as to whether the required factors for a deemed marriage were met.
In sum, it is our opinion that Claimant may be entitled to wife’s benefits on the
NH’s account, based on a deemed marriage to the NH, assuming Claimant meets all other
eligibility requirements for wife’s benefits. However, before finding a deemed marriage
between Claimant and the NH, we recommend further development of the record on the
issue of whether Claimant acted in good faith in entering into marriage with the NH.