TN 4 (04-12)

PR 05405.045 South Carolina

A. PR 12-057 Validity of Marriage between Claimant and her Stepfather – South Carolina

Number Holder – Clyde  Claimant – Lynda

DATE: February 16, 2012

1. SYLLABUS

The marriage between the NH and the claimant, who is the biological daughter of the NH’s deceased wife, was either valid or voidable. We have no evidence that a court declared the marriage void before the NH’s death, and we find that the marriage was valid for purposes of determining the claimant’s eligibility for widow’s benefits on the NH’s earnings record.  

2. OPINION

QUESTION

You asked whether the claimant was validly married to the number holder for purposes of determining the claimant's eligibility for widow's insurance benefits on the number holder's earnings record where the claimant is the biological daughter of the number holder's deceased wife.

OPINION

The marriage between the claimant and the number holder was either valid or voidable. Because we have no evidence that a court declared the marriage void before number holder died, the outcome, for our purposes, is the same.  That is, the marriage between the claimant and the number holder was valid for purposes of determining the claimant's eligibility for widow's insurance benefits on the number holder's earnings record, whether the marriage was valid from its inception or voidable and not later voided by a court.

BACKGROUND

Lynda (Claimant) was born in Colorado on May, and named Lynda. A New Mexico marriage license and certificate shows Claimant’s mother, Jacqueline, married Billie in 1945, and Claimant reported her mother and Billie were married when she was born. Records of the Social Security Administration (SSA) indicate that Claimant’s mother and Billie apparently divorced, but SSA does not have proof of the divorce or the date of the divorce. 

Clyde, the number holder (NH), married Claimant’s mother in Texas on July 12, 1952, when Claimant was three years old.  According to Claimant, NH initiated proceedings to adopt her in 1955, but she does not know whether the adoption was successful. A certified copy, issued in 2005, of Claimant's Colorado birth certificate includes her birth name and lists her mother and Billie as her parents. However, on March 15, 1965, when Claimant was sixteen, she requested a Social Security number and indicated her last name was B~ (NH’s last name).  On this request, she also listed NH as her father. When Claimant requested a change of last name on her Social Security card on December 20, 1977, she indicated NH was her father.  On September 12, 2001, Claimant requested a replacement Social Security card and again listed NH as her father. 

According to SSA records, Claimant’s mother died on October 8, 2008. Claimant and NH purportedly married on September 11, 2010, in South Carolina. NH's death certificate indicates he died on September 26, 2011, while a resident of South Carolina. 

Claimant applied for, and received, widow’s insurance benefits and the lump sum death benefit on NH's earning record. SSA suspended her benefits after discovering NH was her stepfather. Claimant reported she did not inform SSA that NH was her stepfather when she filed her application because an attorney allegedly had told her that in South Carolina it was legal to marry a member of her family as long as the person was not of the same sex. Claimant said she married NH to prevent NH’s biological children from placing him in a skilled nursing facility. She said she took care of NH for five years preceding his death. 

DISCUSSION

Under the Social Security Act (Act), a claimant may be eligible for widow’s insurance benefits if she is the “widow” of an individual who died a fully insured individual. See Act § 202(e)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335 (2011). “Widow” means the “surviving wife” of an individual. See Act § 216(c)(1); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335(a), 404.344 (2011). A claimant was the “wife” of the insured if the courts of State in which the insured was domiciled when he died would find the claimant and the insured were validly married when he died. A claimant may be the insured’s “surviving wife” if she was married to the insured for at least nine months immediately before the insured died. See Act § 216(c)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(1). Claimant’s purported marriage to NH lasted more than nine months immediately prior to his death. See Act § 216(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345 (2011). NH's death certificate indicates he was a resident of South Carolina when he died.  Therefore, we look to South Carolina law to determine if Claimant and NH were validly married when NH died. 

In South Carolina, no man can marry his daughter or his wife's daughter and no woman may marry her stepfather. S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10(B), (C) (2011). It is not clear, in this case, whether NH adopted Claimant in 1955.  Claimant reports NH initiated adoption proceedings but she does not know whether the adoption was successful. A 2005 copy of Claimant’s Colorado birth certificate does not reflect an adoption; nor does it prove that an adoption did not occur in another state. 

Similarly, it is not certain that Claimant would qualify as NH’s “wife’s daughter” or that NH would qualify as Claimant’s “stepfather” under S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10. The marriage between NH and Claimant’s mother ended with the death of Claimant’s mother. See Jannino v. Jannino, 108 S.E.2d 572, 575 (S.C. 1959); State v. Sellers, 134 S.E. 873, 874 (S.C. 1926). Consequently, one could assert that, after that marriage ended, Claimant was no longer NH’s “wife’s daughter” and that NH was no longer Claimant’s “stepfather.” On the other hand, one could interpret S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10 to mean the “wife’s daughter” and “stepfather” relationship persists after the mother’s death. Since bigamy laws would prohibit the husband’s marriage to his stepdaughter (or to anyone else) while he is married to the mother, the State legislature would not have needed to make the same marriage illegal under S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10. 

South Carolina law provides little guidance on whether a man’s marriage to his ex-wife’s daughter is prohibited under S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10. However, we do not need to resolve that question here, or the question of whether NH adopted Claimant in 1955, because a marriage that violates S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10 is voidable, rather than void. A voidable marriage is deemed valid “to all intents and for all civil purposes” if the marriage is not avoided or annulled while both parties to the marriage are still living. Bennett v. Bennett, 10 S.E.2d 23, 24 (S.C. 1940); see also Smith v. State, 85 S.E. 958 (S.C. 1915); Tyson v. Weatherly, 52 S.E.2d 410 (S.C. 1949). A court must declare the prohibited marriage void in an action directly attacking the validity of the marriage. See S.C. Code Ann § 20-1-510 (2011); see generally State v. Sellers, 134 S.E. 873, 877 (S.C. 1926). 

Although South Carolina courts apparently have not directly addressed the issue of the validity of a marriage between a stepchild and stepparent, the South Carolina Supreme Court, considered the issue tangentially in a case involving the construction of the terms of a deed of property. In T~, the court held that the contingencies in the deed had not occurred and, therefore, the property did not pass to the grantee under the terms of the deed but instead to the decedent's devisees under his will. 52 S.E.2d at 410-12. In attempting to undermine the rights of the will's devisees, the plaintiffs made a cursory argument that, because the decedent's widow married the decedent's son, i.e., her stepson, she and her heirs were precluded from inheriting under the decedent's will. See id. at 412.  The court noted the decedent's widow and his son had both died and no action or proceeding was ever brought to avoid their marriage, and the plaintiffs' brief provided no further argument regarding the issue. See id.  Nevertheless, the court considered the issue and stated the precursor to S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10 prohibited the marriage. See id.; S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10(B) & (C) (prohibiting a man from marrying his stepmother and a woman from marrying her husband's son). Though this conclusion could provide some support for interpreting S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10 as prohibiting a man’s marriage to the daughter of his ex-wife (the second alternative interpretation, above), that support would be weak, because the parties did not fully brief the issue and the conclusion was not essential to the decision of the court.

More important for our purposes, however, is the court’s indication that the marriage between the decedent’s wife and son was voidable but not void, and because the parties had died without avoidance or annulment of the marriage, the marriage was valid. See id. See generally B~, 10 S.E.2d at 24 (finding a marriage between half-blood siblings voidable); S~, 85 S.E. at 960 (same). 

Consequently, if NH adopted Claimant in 1955, or if a South Carolina court would interpret S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10 as prohibiting a marriage between a woman and her mother’s ex-husband, the marriage between NH and Claimant was voidable.  Since we have no evidence that any court voided the marriage before NH died, that marriage was valid under South Carolina law. If, on the other hand, NH never adopted Claimant and S.C. Code Ann. § 20-1-10 is better read to presume a stepparent/stepchild relationship dissolves when the marriage between a man and the child’s biological mother ends, the marriage between NH and Claimant would appear to be valid under South Carolina law.  In either case, we believe the marriage between Claimant and NH was valid as of NH’s

CONCLUSION

We believe Claimant and NH were validly married under South Carolina law for the purposes of determining whether Claimant is eligible for widow's insurance benefits on NH's earnings record.  

Mary Ann Sloan
Acting Regional Chief Counsel,

By: Arthurice T. Brundidge
Assistant Regional Counsel


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PR 05405.045 - South Carolina - 04/02/2012
Batch run: 04/02/2012
Rev:04/02/2012