PR 05405.025 Michigan

A. PR 86-040 Effect of Michigan Court Order Determining Heirs Julia C. R~

DATE: October 29, 1986



The Secretary is not bound by a finding in State probate court on the validity of a marriage but cannot ignore the finding. It will be necessary to find out the basis of the court's finding to see if it is consistent with the law as enunciated by the State's highest court. The Secretary must then decide independently on the basis of the facts available. (R~, Julia C., — RAV (L~), to ARC, Progs., 10/29/86.)


You have asked for our assistance in resolving the issue of whether the Social Security Administration (SSA) is obliged to accept a Michigan probate court jury's finding that Julia C. R~ (Julia) was not validly married to Robert J. B~ (Robert). After reviewing the relevant law, we conclude that SSA is not bound by the probate court's decision in determining Julia's entitlement to benefits subsequent to July 1980.

As Larry D. R~ 's mother, Julia began receiving Title II benefits in 1976 on the account of his father, Larry V. R~, a disabled wage earner. After the wage earner died in 1979, Julia and Larry began receiving survivor's benefits on the deceased's account.

In March 1982, Julia's attorney reported that his client had excess earnings for the years 1979-1982. Before SSA could determine the exact amount of the overpayment resulting from Julia's excess earnings during these years, Julia died intestate on December 27, 1982. 1_/

Shortly after Julia died, Robert filed a Petition to Determine Heirship asking the Macomb County, Michigan Probate Court to find that he was Julia's surviving spouse and heir at law. In support of his petition, Robert alleged that he and Julia were married on July 14, 1980 in Los Angeles County, California and remained married when Julia died. He filed with the probate court a certified copy of a "Confidential Record of Marriage" which appears to verify that on July 14, 1980 the parties were married by a minister in Inglewood, California.

In October 1983 SSA first learned that Julia had remarried and accordingly initiated action to terminate her entitlement to benefits retroactive to July 1980. 2_/ Following a jury trial on May 29, 1984, the probate court accepted the jury's verdict that Robert's marriage to Julia was invalid and ruled that Larry was Julia's sole heir. You have tried unsuccessfully to learn the basis for the jury's decision that the marriage was invalid.

To our knowledge, the Supreme Court has never addressed the precise question of whether a State probate court decision as to an individual's family status binds the Secretary of Health and Human Services when that person later claims benefits under the Social Security Act (the Act). In a similar context, however, the Court has stated that a State probate's court decision determining estate tax liability does not bind the I.R.S. in administering Federal tax law.

[W]hen the application of a federal statute is involved, the decision of a state trial court as to an underlying issue of state law...should not be controlling. This is but an application of the rule of Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, supra, where [the] state law as announced by the highest court of the State is to be followed. This is not a diversity case but the same principle may be applied for the same reasons, viz., the underlying substantive rule involved is based on state law and the State's highest court is the best authority of its own law. If there be no decision by that court then federal authorities must apply what they find to be the state law after giving "proper regard" to [the] relevant rulings of other courts of the State.

Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465, 87 S.Ct. 1776, 1782-1783 (1967). Thus, the Supreme Court has refused to find a Federal agency bound by a State trial court decision, even where the State court determined the identical issue later before the agency. Instead, the Court found that substantive State law is determined with reference to the decisions of the highest court in the State.

Moreover, the Sixth Circuit (which encompasses the State of Michigan) has twice addressed the specific question of whether the Secretary of Health and Human Services is bound by a State trial court decision-following proceedings to which he was not a party. First, in Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973), the Court stated that while the Secretary was not bound by such a decision, he "is not free to ignore an adjudication of a state trial court where it is fair and consistent with the law as enunciated by the highest court of the state." Id. at 1373 (citation omitted).

The issue before the Court in Gray was whether under Ohio law, a child who had been declared legitimate in a contested divorce proceeding would be entitled to share in a deceased wage earner's intestate property as his child. Id. at 1372. The Court noted that this issue was one that 1) had previously been determined by a State court; 2) had been genuinely contested before the State court by parties with opposing interests; and 3) fell within the category of domestic relations law, an area traditionally entrusted to the States, not the Federal government. Id. at 1373. Finally, the Court was convinced that in determining the issue of intestate succession an Ohio pro- bate court would follow the adjudication of legitimacy made by the divorce court because the decision was consistent with the applicable law as enunciated by the State's highest court. Id. at 1373. For these reasons, the Court held that the Secretary should have accepted the probate court's determination. Id.

In Dennis v. Railroad Retirement Board, 585 F.2d 151 (6th Cir. 1978), the Sixth Circuit again considered the question of whether a State trial court decision is binding on a Federal agency that must determine State law in interpreting a Federal statute. Citing Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Estate of Bosch, 87 S.Ct. at 1782, the Court concluded that such trial court decisions are not binding on Federal tribunals. 585 F.2d at 155. Nonetheless, the Court explained that lower state court decisions are "entitled to considerable deference, especially when the state law is in an area of law traditionally preserved to the states." Id. at 154. The Court concluded that on the facts and law before it, the Railroad Retirement Board should have accepted the probate court decision that the marriage in question was valid because the trial court's decision was consistent with Ohio law as expressed by the highest court in that State. Id. 3_/

The foregoing authorities establish that the relevant inquiry is whether the probate court's decision is consistent with the law as set down by the Michigan Supreme Court. In both Gray and Dennis, the Court had before it extensive records reflecting the reasons that led the State trial courts to conclude as they did. Consequently, the Court in each case was able to analyze whether these trial court decisions were consistent with State law. Here, on the other hand, we have only a conclusory order stating that the jury found Julia's marriage to Robert invalid; you have been unable to determine what facts the jury had before it in reaching this decision, or what law they applied in concluding that the marriage was invalid. It is therefore impossible for you to determine whether the probate court's decision is consistent with Michigan law governing the validity of marriages. Under these circumstances, SSA would not be required to follow the probate court order determining heirship.

In responding to your request for advice, we also looked to the Michigan statute under which the probate court was proceeding to see if the statute itself addresses whether and when an order determining heirship is conclusive in a subsequent action. See, Cruz v. Gardner, 375 F.2d at 455. Under section 183 of the Revised Probate Code, a Michigan probate court has the authority to determine the heirs and devisees in any matter pending before it. In so doing, the court may convene a hearing, receive testimony, and consider documentary evidence. 36 M.C.L.A. §700.183. Section 184 of the Revised Probate Code in turn provides that after such a hearing

[i]f the evidence is sufficient to establish the claimed relationship and negate the existence of others of closer or equal degree to the decedent, the [probate] court shall determine the heirs and devisees of the deceased who are entitled by the laws of this state to inherit the property of the deceased, or to take title to property conveyed or granted to the heirs or devisees of the deceased, which determination and adjudication, showing the date of decedent's death, shall be entered on the journal of the court. An authenticated cops of the determination and adjudication with respect to real property shall be recorded in the office of the register of deeds of the counts of probate and may be filed in any other county in the state, and shall, unless appealed from, be conclusive evidence of the fact as to who were the heirs and devisees of the deceased' person as of the time of his death or as of such other date as specified in the determination if that determination is made in the course of the administration of the estate or 15 sears elapsed since the death of the decedent. In all other cases it shall be prima facie evidence only. The original record of the court or an authenticated cops thereof, or record of the authenticated cops recorded in the office of the register of deeds, or a certified cops thereof, shall be admitted in evidence in all the courts in this state upon any trial or proceedings in any court where' the question of title may be involved or wherein it be- comes material.

36 M.C.L.A. §700.184, P.A. 1978, No. 642, §184, Eff. July 1, 1979 (emphasis supplied).

We read this provision to mean that a determination of heirship is conclusive evidence as to the identity of a decedent's heirs only with respect to questions of title to real property, and then only if the probate court determined heirship during the course of the administration of the estate or if the decedent has been dead at least 15 years. We reach this conclusion because the first underlined sentence above speaks to recording with the register of deeds authenticated copies of all determinations of heirship "with respect to real property." Moreover, the second sentence underlined provides that the probate court record, or the record of the authenticated copy filed with the register of deeds, is admissible in subsequent proceedings where the issue of title (ownership of real property) is involved. These two sentences, read together, indicate to us that the Michigan legislature intended orders determining heirship to be conclusive only in subsequent proceedings raising issues of title to real property. Accordingly, in all other cases, including a claim for social security benefits, the order determining heirship is prima facie evidence as to the identity of the decedent's heirs. 4_/

Although the Michigan probate courts have had the authority to determine heirship since 1887, very few reported cases have addressed the issue of whether orders determining heirship are conclusive in subsequent proceedings involving different issues and parties. In two older cases addressing this question, the Michigan Supreme Court held the probate order not conclusive based on the language of the probate statute itself. See, Lorimer v. Carpenter, 75 N.W. 133 (Mich. 1898); Hawley v. Dibble, 151 N.W. 712 (Mich. 1915). More recently, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a probate order determining heirship is not binding in a subsequent claim for worker's compensation benefits. Jesionowski v. Allied Products Corp., 329 Mich. 209, 45 N.W.2d 39, 40 (Mich. 1951). Without citing the language of the probate statute, the Court held in Jesionowski that the state worker's compensation commission was not bound by a probate court's finding on the issue of the claimant's status as common-law wife of a deceased worker. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that under the worker's compensation statute the commission has the sole authority to resolve all questions of fact in worker's compensation proceedings. According to the Court, the issue of whether the claimant was the deceased worker's common-law wife was such a factual issue. Id. Further, the Court reasoned that the subject matter of the probate proceeding and the parties thereto differed from the subject matter of the compensation proceeding. Id.

Since Jesionowski, the Michigan Supreme Court has not ruled on the question of whether a probate order determining heirship is binding in a subsequent proceeding involving different issues and parties. Based on our reading of the current probate statute, however, and considering the Court's reluctance over the years to find such orders conclusive, we think that the Court would be unlikely to hold such an order binding on a party to a later action who was not a party to the probate proceedings.

In conclusion, the relevant law demonstrates that SSA is not bound by the probate court order but may independently decide the question of the validity of Julia's marriage to Robert. In doing so, however, SSA should not ignore the probate court's decision. Instead, you should attempt to determine whether the jury correctly decided the question of the validity of Julia's marriage to Robert. We therefore recommend that before reaching a final decision on the validity of Julia's marriage to Robert, you obtain a copy of the complete transcript of proceedings before the probate court. We also recommend that a representative from SSA search the probate court file for additional documents that shed light on the basis for the jury's conclusion. Further, we suggest that you obtain statements from other individuals who may possess knowledge of this matter. For example, the attorney who represented Robert in the probate proceedings may have information that could help explain why the jury reached its conclusion that his client's marriage to Julia was invalid.

If you are still unable to learn the basis for the jury's verdict or if the additional evidence you gather convinces you that the probate court jury erred in finding that Julia and Robert were not validly married, then you may reject the conclusion of the probate court.

1_/ According to documentation contained in the claims folder, Julia was overpaid $5873.80 due to her excess earnings

2_/ If her marriage to Robert was valid, Julia was overpaid $12,114.30, ac- cording to documentation contained in the claims folder.

3_/ In addition to Gray and Dennis, a number of other Federal courts have addressed the issue of whether a State probate court order is conclusive on the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The majority of these cases support our conclusion that the probate court decision determining Julia's heirs does not bind SSA. Cruz v. Gardner, 375 F.2d 453 (7th Cir. 1967); Cain v. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, 377 F.2d 55 (4th Cir. 1967). See also, Schultz v. Celebrezze, 267 F. Supp. 880 (S.D. Ind. 1967); Miller v. Ribicoff, 198 F. Supp. 819, 821 (E.D. Mich. 1961); Marek v. Fleming, 192 F. Supp. 528 (D. Tex. 1961); Nigro v. Hobby, 120 F. Supp. 16 (D. Neb. 1954). But see, Zeldman v. Celebrezze, 252 F. Supp. 167 (E.D.N.Y. 1965); Collins v. Celebrezze, 250 F. Supp. 37 (S.D.N.Y. 1966).

4_/ Prima facie evidence is evidence that suffices as proof of a particular fact until contradicted and overcome by other evidence. Black's Law Dictionary 1071 (5th Ed. 1979).

B. PR 82-034 OASI - Michigan - Validity of marriage performed after expiration of marriage license - James W. W~

DATE: August 3, 1982



Unless a statute expressly states that a marriage is void if a particular provision is complied with, as it does in some instances, failure to comply with the provisions does not render the marriage invalid. While the statute provides that a marriage license is void 33 days after the application for the license, it does not expressly void a marriage if an expired license is used. (W~, James W. ~- RA V (B~) to ARC - 8/3/82)


This is in response to your memorandum inquiring whether claimant's marriage was void or voidable under Michigan law since the marriage ceremony was performed after claimant's marriage license had expired. We conclude that claimant's marriage is not void, but at most voidable.


Claimant was receiving mother's benefits, but her benefits were terminated due to her remarriage. Claimant and her proposed husband had applied for a Michigan marriage license on May 14, 1981, which license was issued on May 18, 1981. The marriage ceremony was performed on June 20, 1981 in Michigan by a religious official. Thereafter, claimant received a notice from the Office of the County Clerk, Wayne County, Michigan dated June 29, 1981 advising her that the marriage license had been used "more than thirty-three days after its date of application in violation of Michigan Statutes" and that it would be necessary for her to re-apply for a marriage license and repeat the marriage ceremony.


Michigan law clearly provides that a "marriage license issued shall be void, unless a marriage is solemnized thereunder, within 33 days after the application." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. 551.103a. Since claimant applied for a marriage license on May 14, 1981, the license indisputably was void when the marriage ceremony was performed on June 20, 1981 (37 days after May 14, 1981). In order to determine the effect of the expired license on claimant's marriage, however, Michigan law must be further examined.

Michigan law provides that "[i]t shall be necessary for all parties intending to be married to obtain a marriage license and to deliver the said license to the clergyman or magistrate who is to officiate, before the marriage can be performed" and that: '.

Marriage, so far as its validity in law is concerned, is a civil contract, to which the consent of the parties capable in law of contracting, is essential. Consent alone will not be enough to effectuate a legal marriage from and after January 1, 1957. Consent must be followed by the issuance of a license as provided for by . . . section 551.101 or section 551.201 and solemnization, as authorized by sections [551.7-551.18] of this act.

Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. 551.2. Nowhere, however, does the Michigan statute governing marriage expressly state that a marriage is void if a license is not issued or an expired or improperly issued license is used. Rather, the statute imposes penalties upon the person who joins in marriage any persons "who have not delivered to him a properly issued license" or who joins any persons in marriage "contrary to the provisions of this chapter." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. 551.14; 551.106. It also provides that a marriage shall not be void "on account of any want of jurisdiction or authority in the supposed judge, magistrate, mayor, clerk, employee or minister if the marriage was consummated with a full belief on the part of the persons married, or either of them, that they were lawfully joined in marriage." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. 551.16. In contrast, the Michigan statute does expressly void marriages in a number of other proscribed circumstances (e.g., consanguinity, female under age sixteen, etc.). Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. 551.51; 552.1; 552.2.

In an Opinion issued in 1952, the Attorney General of Michigan stated that where a marriage license is issued and used prematurely, in violation of the provisions of Michigan statute, the marriage is not invalid "in the absence of an express provision of the statute to that effect." [1951-1952] Mich. Att'y Gen. Rep. 461. "In other words," the Attorney General continued, "the regulatory provision . . must be construed as being directory only." The Attorney General then cited the following rule from a treatise on Marriage and Divorce: "' . . statutes regulating the issuing of licenses, the attendance of witnesses, formal solemnization and the like are generally held to be directory unless such a statute expressly invalidates marriages not in conformity therewith.'" That general rule has been adopted and applied in a number of opinions by the Office of the General Counsel. Andrew C~, RA I (T~) to F~, Northeastern Program Service Center, 1981; Chester B~, RA V (C~) to W~, Reg. Rep., BRSI, 7/27/72; RA IX (C~) to Reg. Rep., 10/12/70; Clarence B~, OGC to Chief, Chicago Payment Center, OASI, - 9/8/60; J~ I, OGC (C~) to B~, Chief Area Office, 1/3/56.

Applying the foregoing rule to the Michigan statute, we conclude that the requirement that a license be obtained in order for parties to be married is directory only. Although the statute expressly voids a marriage license 33 days after the application for the license, it does not expressly void a marriage if an expired license is used or even if no license whatsoever is obtained. On the other hand, the statute does expressly void marriages in other instances. Thus, claimant's marriage, despite the expired marriage license, is not void.

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PR 05405.025 - Michigan - 05/22/2002
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