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
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.
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
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).