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
The claimant’s marriage is valid for determining the claimant’s eligibility for CIB
on the number holder’s earnings record.
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. 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
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); 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.
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.” 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).
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).
Analysis of Claimant’s Case
Claimant provided neither preferred evidence nor secondary proof of a ceremonial marriage. 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. 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. 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.
Claimant is validly married for determining his eligibility for CIB on NH’s earnings
Mary Ann Sloan
Regional Chief Counsel
Assistant Regional Counsel