PR 05305.031 Nevada
A. PR 15-077 Validity of Marriage Under California and Nevada Law Deceased Wage Earner: A~ Claimant: M~
DATE: February 4, 2015
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.
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 requirements.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Claimant and the DWE married in Nevada on June 10, 2000. Their child, N~ , was born on October.
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 to DWE.
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 following criteria:
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 unmarried;
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 law.
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 valid.
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 existed.” Id.
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.
This analysis does not include any consideration of possible fraud by Claimant, and its impact on her application for benefits.
The ten-year marriage duration requirement does not apply to surviving divorced mother’s benefits. See Social Security Act § 216(d)(3); 42 U.S.C. § 416(d)(3); POMS RS 00208.010.
You did not ask, and we did not analyze, whether Claimant met the other criteria for mother’s benefits. Presumably, the agency found that, other than for her remarriage to S~, Claimant was entitled to mother’s benefits, as the agency initially awarded her benefits in January 2011.
Despite the plain language of Nevada Rev. Stat. sections 125.290 and 125.300 (specifying bases for voidable marriages, which do not include bigamous marriage), the Williams Court stated that “[a]lthough [the] marriage was void, an annulment proceeding was necessary to sever [the] relationship. An annulment proceeding is the proper manner to dissolve a void marriage and resolve other issues arising from the dissolution of the relationship.” Id. This language suggests that a bigamous marriage is voidable in Nevada by annulment decree, rather than void from inception, as section 125.290 indicates. See POMS GN 00305.075 (defining “void” and “voidable” marriages”). No published Nevada case has yet addressed the conflict created by the Williams decision. However, in In re Marriage of Seaton, 200 Cal. App. 4th at 807, a California appellate court directly considered the problem while interpreting Nevada law to determine the status of a bigamous marriage. In that case, the wife married her second husband in Nevada before she obtained a divorce from her first husband, and then married her third husband without dissolving or annulling the second marriage. Id. at 803-04. The California appellate court held that the second marriage was void at inception because the wife remained married to her first husband at the time of her second marriage. Id. at 807-08. Specifically, the Court rejected as dicta the statement in Williams suggesting that annulment was a necessary precondition to dissolving a void marriage because it was “unnecessary to the determination of the questions involved in the case.” Id. at 808.
Social Security Ruling 83-37c, adopting the holding in Gray v. Richardson, 474 F. 2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973), provides that the agency should accept a State court determination if: “(1) an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits previously has been determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction; (2) this issue was genuinely contested before the State court by parties with opposing interests; (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.” Here, the agency need not accept the State court ruling because at least one element was not met. Specifically, the court proceedings were “default or uncontested,” and, therefore, not genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests. The Court’s determination was, however, generally consistent with our understanding of California law with the exception that the Court cited Family Code § 2210(b) as the basis for nullifying the marriage, while State law supported reliance on Family Code § 2201(a) to hold the marriage void at its inception.
The distinction is material because, had the April 5, 2010 marriage merely been voidable, i.e. entered with a good faith belief that Claimant’s prior marriage had ended, the fiction that the annulment decree “related back” to the inception of the marriage may not apply under all circumstances. See e.g., Purganan v. Schweiker, 665 F. 2d 269 (9th Cir. 1982) (holding that, under California law, an annulment of marriage operates to relate back and erase the marriage and all its implications from the outset only between the parties to the marriage; “[w]hen the rights of third parties or entitlement to public benefits are involved the rule is applied only when it promotes sound policy”); compare Sentuelli v. Folsom, 165 F. Supp. 224, 225-26 (N.D. Cal. 1958) (holding that the annulment of a voidable marriage entered in Nevada, had the effect of making the marriage void from its inception, thus reviving the claimant’s entitlement to widow’s benefits under the Social Security Act); Pearsall v. Folsom, 138 F. Supp. 939, 943-44 (N.D. Cal. 1956) (providing that the “relation back” doctrine is not without limits; but “An exception should not be made to the California rule of ‘relation back’ so as to deprive an innocent plaintiff of Social Security [mother’s] benefits at least where, as here, it is clear that defendant has not been prejudiced”).