You asked whether M~ (Claimant)’s marriage to S~ before the finalization of her divorce
from the deceased wage earner (DWE), A~ , precluded her entitlement to mother’s benefits
on the DWE’s account.
No. Under California law, Claimant’s April 5, 2010 marriage to S~ was void from its
inception. Accordingly, Claimant was unmarried at the time of the DWE’s death, and
she is entitled to mother’s benefits on the DWE’s account if she meets the other applicable
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Claimant and the DWE married in Nevada on June 10, 2000. Their child, N~ , was born
On September 23, 2008, Claimant filed for divorce from the DWE in a California Superior
Court. The divorce did not become final until August 25, 2010, when the Court issued
a judgment dissolving the marriage between Claimant and the DWE. The Court identified
N~ as a child of the marriage, awarded his sole legal and physical custody to Claimant,
and ordered the DWE to pay $349.00 per month in child support.
On April 5, 2010, Claimant married S~ in Reno, Nevada. In an April 4, 2011 declaration
(Form SSA-795), Claimant admitted that she knew she was not legally divorced from
the DWE when she married S~. Claimant reported that she, S~, and the DWE all resided
in Modesto, California, in April 2010.
DWE died on November 28, 2010, while domiciled in California. Claimant filed an application
for mother’s insurance benefits on January 10, 2011 and the agency approved the application.
On June 18, 2014, a California Superior Court issued a judgment nullifying the April
5, 2010 marriage between Claimant and S~, based on Claimant’s previous existing marriage
Under the Social Security Act (the Act), a surviving divorced wife may be entitled
to mother’s benefits on a deceased former husband’s earnings record if she meets the
She was validly married to the insured under state law, but the marriage ended in
a final divorce;
She is the mother of the insured’s child;
She applied for mother’s benefits;
She is not entitled to widow’s benefits or to an old-age benefits; and
She has in her care the insured’s child who is under age sixteen.
Social Security Act §§ 202(g)(1), 216(d)(3),(7); 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(g)(1), 416(d)(3),(7);
see also 20 C.F.R. §404.340 (requirements for mother’s or father’s benefits as a surviving
divorced spouse); Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00208.010.
Based on the information you provided, Claimant’s entitlement to mother’s benefits
as the DWE’s surviving divorced spouse turns on whether she was unmarried at the time
of the DWE’s death. If Claimant’s April 5, 2010 marriage to S~ was valid and she remained married at
the time of the DWE’s death, she would be ineligible for mother’s benefits on the
DWE’s account. See POMS RS 00208.035.A (generally, remarriage bars entitlement to mother’s benefits).
California and Nevada Law
Although the Act specifies that the validity of a marriage between a surviving spouse
and an insured decedent is determined by the law of the State in which the decedent
was domiciled at the time of his death, neither the Act nor our regulations address
which law governs the validity of the surviving spouse’s remarriage to a third party.
See Social Security Act § 216(h)(1)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
Here, the information you provided indicates that the DWE was domiciled in California
at the time of death but the marriage between Claimant and S~ was celebrated in Nevada.
However, because all of the parties to both marriages were domiciled in California
at all relevant times, we believe that California law applies to determine the validity
of Claimant’s Nevada marriage to S~. See POMS PR 05010.004 (applying Connecticut law to determine the validity of a surviving spouse’s remarriage
to a third party because all parties to the matter resided in Connecticut, even though
the marriage was celebrated in Arizona). Here, California would also consider Nevada
The California Family Code provides that “[a] marriage contracted outside this state
that would be valid by the laws of the jurisdiction in which the marriage was contracted
is valid in this state.” Cal. Fam. Code § 308; see also In re Marriage of Seaton, 200 Cal. App. 4th 800, 807, 133 Cal. Rptr. 3d 50, 56 (Cal. Ct. App. 2011) (applying
Nevada law under Family Code § 308 to determine whether a bigamous marriage entered
in Nevada was valid). Claimant married S~ in Reno, Nevada. Accordingly, if Claimant’s
second marriage were valid under Nevada law, California would also recognize it as
Under Nevada law, a marriage is prohibited by law and void, even without decree of
divorce or annulment, if either party to the marriage had a currently living spouse.
Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 122.020, 125.290; but see Williams v. Williams, 120 Nev. 559, 564, 97 P. 3d 1124, 1127 (Nev. 2004) (parties agreed that the marriage
was void under section 125.290, but annulment proceedings were necessary to determine
the would-be wife’s entitlement to joint property as a putative spouse based on her
good faith belief that the marriage was valid when she entered into it).
Claimant married S~ on April 5, 2010, before her divorce from the DWE was finalized
on August 25, 2010. Because Claimant remained married to the DWE at the time she wed
S~, that marriage was void and prohibited under Nevada law. See Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 122.020, 125.290. Because the marriage was invalid under Nevada
law, California, likewise, would consider the marriage invalid. See Cal. Fam. Code § 308.
California courts defer to Nevada law in determining the validity of marriages contracted
in Nevada. See, e.g., In re Marriage of Seaton, 200 Cal. App. 4th at 807-808. However, California applies its own law to determine
whether a marriage, invalidly contracted in another state, was void from inception
or merely voidable. See Cal. Fam. Code § 308. Thus, we look to California law to determine this issue. The
California Superior Court, in the June 18, 2014 judgment, nullifying the April 5,
2010 marriage, therefore correctly relied upon California law in nullifying the marriage
between Claimant and S~.
Under California law, when a person knowingly enters into a bigamous marriage, that
marriage is illegal and void from its inception. See Cal. Fam. Code § 2201(a); In re Marriage of Seaton, 200 Cal. App. 4th at 806; accord POMS GN 00305.125 (“A void marriage is a marriage that is legally nonexistent from the beginning under
state law. The parties to a void marriage are considered never to have been validly
married. Therefore, a void marriage requires no formality to terminate.”). By contrast,
when a person enters into a bigamous marriage in good faith, the bigamous marriage
is voidable. See Cal. Fam. Code § 2210(b). A voidable marriage “is valid for all purposes until it
is judicially declared a nullity.” In re Marriage of Seaton, 200 Cal. App. 4th at 807 (citing Estate of Gregorson, 160 Cal. 21, 26-27 (Cal. 1911)); see also POMS GN 00305.130 (“A voidable marriage is a marriage which is defective and can be adjudged void (annulled),
but which is considered valid unless and until declared void as a result of a court
action on its validity”). Even when a marriage is voidable, it may be adjudged a nullity,
and such judgment may “‘relate back’ and erase the marriage” from the outset. In re Marriage of Seaton, 200 Cal. App. 4th at 807 (citation omitted); see also Cal. Fam. Code § 2210(b).
Here, a California Superior Court issued a June 18, 2014 judgment nullifying Claimant’s
marriage to S~ under section 2210(b) of the California Family Code, which applies
to a voidable marriage. However, Claimant admits that she was aware at the time of
her marriage to S~ that she was still married to the DWE. Thus, Claimant’s marriage
to S~ was void from its inception even absent a decree of nullity. See Cal. Fam. Code § 2201(a); Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc., 56 Cal. 4th 1113, 302 P.3d 211, 216 (Cal. 2013) (recognizing that putative spouse doctrine
applies only when spouse has genuine belief in validity of marriage).
Because Claimant married S~ with full knowledge that she was still currently married
to the DWE, her marriage to S~ was void from inception. See Cal. Fam. Code § 2201(a). As the marriage was void from its inception, Claimant was
unmarried at the time of the DWE’s death, and her marriage to S~ did not preclude
her entitlement to mother’s benefits. See POMS GN 00305.125 (“A void marriage does not preclude initial entitlement to benefits of claimants
who must not be married.”). Although a court decree nullifies Claimant’s marriage
to S~, the date of that decree is “irrelevant to entitlement as the marriage never
Claimant’s marriage to S~ was void from inception, and, therefore, Claimant was not
married at the time of DWE’s death. Accordingly, assuming all other requirements were
met, Claimant’s marriage to S~ did not preclude her entitlement to mother’s benefits
as a surviving divorced spouse of the DWE.