TN 9 (07-15)

PR 05405.036 North Carolina

A. PR 15-146 Validity of North Carolina Marriage for Purposes of Eligibility for Child’s Insurance Benefits

Date: June 12, 2015

1. Syllabus

NH was domiciled in North Carolina when Claimant applied for CIB on NH’s earnings record, therefore, we look to North Carolina law to determine whether Claimant’s marriage is valid. The New Haven County register of deeds confirmed that Claimant obtained a marriage license. Both Claimant and spouse provided statements that they went through a marriage ceremony. Claimant’s spouse stated that she entered the marriage believing she was married, and Claimant reported that following the marriage, he and his spouse lived as husband and wife until 2013. The Claimant has provided evidence of a ceremonial marriage followed by cohabitation and a reputation as husband and wife. Such evidence establishes the presumption of a ceremonial marriage and under North Carolina law, proof of a ceremonial marriage creates a presumption that the marriage was valid. Claimant is validly married for determining his eligibility for CIB on NH’s earnings record. Because Claimant’s marriage is valid, the application of SSA’s putative marriage policy does not apply to Claimant’s case.

2. Opinion

QUESTION

You asked whether a claimant’s North Carolina marriage is valid for determining the claimant’s eligibility for child’s insurance benefits (CIB) on the number holder’s earnings record.

OPINION

The claimant’s marriage is valid for determining the claimant’s eligibility for CIB on the number holder’s earnings record.

BACKGROUND

According to the information provided, the Social Security Administration (SSA) found V~ (Claimant) entitled to Supplemental Security Income and CIB on his mother’s earnings record in March 2000. Claimant and Ms. K~ reported going through a marriage ceremony performed by a minister in New Hanover County, North Carolina on February 6, 2010. Unbeknownst to the couple at the time, however, the minister never returned the marriage license to the County’s register of deeds following the ceremony.1 Additionally, according to Claimant, the minister did not sign the marriage certificate. Claimant also reported he and Ms. K~ lived as husband and wife following the marriage ceremony. Ms. K~ indicated she entered the marriage ceremony believing she would be married to Claimant.

In July 2010, SSA terminated Claimant’s CIB on his mother’s record effective February 2010. Claimant and Ms. K~ reported they separated in 2013. The information provided does not include evidence of a divorce or annulment. In February 2015, Claimant filed for CIB on the earnings record of his father B~, the number holder (NH). NH was residing in North Carolina and receiving Disability Insurance Benefits when Claimant applied for CIB.

DISCUSSION

To be eligible for CIB, a claimant must be unmarried. See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(d)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a)(4) (2015);2 Program Operations Manual System (POMS) DI 10115.001.C. A claimant who has been married is considered unmarried at the time of filing an application if the marriage: (1) was void or (2) has been terminated by annulment, divorce, or death. See POMS RS 00203.020.A.1. The Act and regulations do not expressly address which law applies to determine a claimant’s marital status to an individual other than the number holder. However, subsumed within the question of whether a claimant is entitled to CIB on the number holder’s earning record is the question of whether the claimant was married to another individual. Therefore, we infer from the Act and regulations on which State law determines marital status that the law of the State in which a number holder was domiciled when the claimant applied for CIB would also determine the claimant’s marital status to another individual. See Act § 216(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345, 404.723; see also, e.g., Smith v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 1284, 1285 (11th Cir. 1983) (stating the “appropriate criterion for evaluating a claimant's eligibility for widow’s insurance benefits is determined according to the law of the insured’s domicile at the time of his death” and analyzing under the law of the number holder’s domicile whether the claimant was married to someone other than the number holder when the number holder died). NH was domiciled in North Carolina when Claimant applied for CIB on NH’s earnings record. Therefore, we look to North Carolina law to determine whether Claimant’s marriage is valid.

  1. North Carolina Marriage Law

    Under North Carolina law, a valid marriage is created when two persons who may lawfully marry consent to marry in the presence of one another either . . . in the presence of an ordained minister, a minister authorized by a church, or a magistrate, and the minister or magistrate consequently declares that the persons are married. . . . See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1 (West 2015). “To constitute a valid marriage in [North Carolina], the requirements of [N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1] must be met.” State v. Lynch, 272 S.E.2d 349, 353 (N.C. 1980).

    Additionally, no person authorized to solemnize a marriage shall perform a marriage ceremony without (1) a marriage license signed by the register of deeds (or a lawful deputy or assistant) of the county in which the marriage license was issued and (2) at least two witnesses to the marriage ceremony. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-6 (West 2015). A minister who performs a marriage but fails to return the license to the register of deeds within ten days after the ceremony is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be subject to a $200 penalty. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-7 (West 2015). Nevertheless, a “marriage is not invalid because solemnized without a marriage license or under an illegal license.” Wooley v. Bruton, 114 S.E. 628, 629 (N.C. 1922) (citations omitted); see POMS GN 00305.005.B.3 (noting that a “marriage may be valid under state law despite the fact that the parties to the marriage did not secure a license”).

    Moreover, in North Carolina, only bigamous marriages are void; all other marriages are merely voidable. See Mussa v. Palmer-Mussa, 731 S.E.2d 404, 408 (N.C. 2012); Fulton v. Vickery, 326 S.E.2d 354, 358 (N.C. Ct. App. 1985). While a void marriage is a nullity that may be impeached at any time, “[a] voidable marriage is valid for all civil purposes until annulled by a competent tribunal in a direct proceeding.” Pridgen v. Pridgen, 166 S.E. 591, 593 (N.C. 1932). Although North Carolina has no statutory law on how to obtain an annulment, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has held that “[a]n action to annul a marriage for statutory reasons is in the nature of an action for divorce.”3 Sawyer v. Stack, 146 S.E. 864, 865 (N.C. 1929). An action for divorce is made by filing a complaint in state court. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 50-8 (West 2015).

  2. SSA Evidentiary Requirements

    As proof of a valid ceremonial marriage, SSA prefers either an original certificate of marriage or a certified copy of a public or religious record of marriage. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.725(b)(2); POMS GN 00305.020.A. Where SSA cannot obtain preferred proof of a ceremonial marriage, SSA will accept other convincing evidence of a marriage. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.725(c); POMS GN 00305.025; POMS GN 00305.030. Secondary proof of a ceremonial marriage may include a statement from the claimant describing the ceremony and other documentary evidence of probative value establishing a ceremony took place. See POMS GN 00305.025.B.

    When SSA cannot obtain secondary proof of a ceremonial marriage, a presumption of a ceremonial marriage may arise when a ceremonial marriage is alleged and it is accompanied by cohabitation and repute. See POMS GN 00305.030.A. North Carolina courts have held that “upon proof that a marriage ceremony took place, it will be presumed that it was legally performed and resulted in a valid marriage.” Pickard v. Pickard, 625 S.E.2d 869, 872 (N.C. Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Kearney v. Thomas, 33 S.E.2d 871, 876 (N.C. 1945)) (quotation marks and brackets omitted).

  3. Analysis of Claimant’s Case

    Claimant provided neither preferred evidence nor secondary proof of a ceremonial marriage.4 See 20 C.F.R. § 404.725; POMS GN 00305.020.A; POMS GN 00305.025.B. Nevertheless, the information contains convincing evidence to establish the presumption of a valid ceremonial marriage. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.725(c); POMS GN 00305.030.A.

    The New Haven County register of deeds confirmed that Claimant obtained a marriage license. Both Claimant and Ms. K~ provided statements that they went through a marriage ceremony on February 6, 2010.5 Ms. K~ stated that she entered the marriage believing she was married, and Claimant reported that following the marriage, he and Ms. K~ lived as husband and wife until 2013. Thus, Claimant has provided evidence of a ceremonial marriage followed by cohabitation and a reputation as husband and wife. Such evidence establishes the presumption of a ceremonial marriage, see POMS GN 00305.030.A, and under North Carolina law, proof of a ceremonial marriage creates a presumption that the marriage was valid. See Pickard, 625 S.E.2d at 872.

    Nothing in the information provided indicates Claimant and Ms. K~ ’s marriage did not satisfy the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1 for consent by the parties and marriage by an authorized minister. See Lynch, 272 S.E.2d at 353. The County register of deeds confirmed Claimant obtained a marriage license. Although the evidence does not include a copy of the marriage license, there is no indication the minister did not have a license at the time he solemnized Claimant and Ms. K~ ’s marriage.6 While the minister’s failure to return the license to the register of deeds may make him culpable under N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-7, nothing in § 51-7 addresses the validity of a marriage following such an omission.

    Even if Claimant and Ms. K~ ’s marriage was voidable for lack of a registered license, their marriage would still be valid until annulled via a court action. See Mussa, 731 S.E.2d at 408; Pridgen, 166 S.E. at 593; Sawyer, 146 S.E. at 865; see also N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 50-8. While Claimant and Ms. K~ separated in 2013, nothing in the evidence indicates they terminated the marriage by annulment or divorce. Thus, for purposes of Claimant’s eligibility for CIB, he and Ms. K~ are validly married under North Carolina law. See Act § 202(d)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a)(4); POMS DI 10115.001.C.

    You also asked whether North Carolina allows for inheritance rights as a spouse for the putative marriage between Claimant and Ms. K~ . A putative marriage is a relationship in which a party to a void marriage may acquire inheritance rights as a spouse based on the party’s good faith belief in the existence of a valid marriage. See Act § 216(h)(1)(A)(ii); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345; POMS GN 00305.085.A.1; POMS RS 00203.020.A.2.a. Because Claimant’s marriage is valid, however, the application of SSA’s putative marriage policy is inapposite to Claimant’s case.

CONCLUSION

Claimant is validly married for determining his eligibility for CIB on NH’s earnings record.

Sincerely,

Mary Ann Sloan

Regional Chief Counsel

By: ___________________

Owen Keegan

Assistant Regional Counsel


Footnotes:

[1]

In December 2014, SSA verified with the New Haven County register of deeds that Claimant obtained a marriage license, but the license expired and the marriage certificate was never filed.

[2]

All references to 20 C.F.R. are to the 2015 version.

[3]

Moreover, at least one of North Carolina’s divorce statutes appears to contemplate that individuals may file actions for an annulment as well. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 50-10(a) (West 2015) (stating that “the material facts in every complaint asking for a divorce or for an annulment shall be deemed to be denied by the defendant” (emphasis added)).

[4]

Although Claimant provided a statement that he went through a marriage ceremony, he did not describe the ceremony or provide any documentary evidence establishing a ceremony took place. See POMS GN 00305.025.B.

[5]

Claimant’s own statement that he went through a marriage ceremony particularly weighs in favor of finding a valid ceremonial marriage because for purposes of his eligibility for CIB, the statement is against his own interests. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(4), 404.725(c).

[6]

Even if the minister did not have a license at the time of the marriage ceremony, the lack of a marriage license would not invalidate the marriage. See Wooley, 114 S.E. at 629.


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http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/1505405036
PR 05405.036 - North Carolina - 07/13/2015
Batch run: 07/13/2015
Rev:07/13/2015