In a case governed by Alabama law, has a claimant presented sufficient evidence to
show that she is the surviving widow of number holder?
As discussed in greater detail below, we believe that Claimant has presented sufficient
evidence to show that she is the number holder's surviving spouse either through a
valid ceremonial or common-law marriage.
The facts as presented are that Mary J. B~ (Claimant) filed an application for survivor
benefits as the widow of Francis B~, the number holder (NH), who died in 1959 in the
State of Alabama. Claimant is an eighty-six year old Supplemental Security Income
(SSI) recipient with a representative payee; and the Agency employee that interviewed
her observed that she had a poor memory and seemed confused.
Claimant alleges that she and NH had a ceremonial marriage in March 1945 in Mobile,
Alabama. Claimant does not remember the name of the official who performed the ceremony,
and the witnesses are dead. Claimant did not have a copy of the marriage license,
and the Agency could not locate a copy after a reasonable search through state records.
There were neither pictures taken at the ceremony nor a wedding announcement published
in the newspaper. As proof of the marriage, Claimant provided several documents that
listed her as NH's spouse: NH's death certificate, a mortgage deed, and two union
Prior to their alleged marriage, Claimant had been married once; and NH had been married
twice. The Agency obtained copies of the marriage certificates for Claimant's prior
marriage and one of NH's prior marriages. The Agency was unable to locate divorce
decrees showing that either Claimant's or NH's prior marriages ended; however, the
Alabama Office of Vital Records does not maintain divorce records prior to 1950. Claimant
believed that she divorced her first husband, Stevenson T~, in 1943. When Mr. T~ applied
for retirement insurance benefits, he indicated that he divorced Claimant on October
1, 1948. The Agency also obtained birth certificates for the children of Claimant
and/or NH: (1) Dorothy T~, born 8/6/44 to Stephen T~ and Mary J. B~; (2) Matthew B~,
born 3/28/45 to Francis B~ and Earnestine G~; (3) Edward B~, born 3/24/46 to Francis
B~ and Mary B~; (4) Johnny L. B~, born 9/12/47 to Francis B~ and Mary J. B~.
Under the Social Security Act (Act), the widow of a fully-insured individual is entitled
to benefits upon attaining age sixty. See section 202(e)(1)(B)(i) of the Act, 42 U.S.C.
§ 402(e)(1)(B)(i). Because Claimant is the mother of two of NH's children, she would
be his "widow" if she establishes that she is his "surviving wife." Section 216(c)(1)
of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(1).
There are two ways that Claimant may qualify as NH's widow, and thus be eligible for
survivor benefits under the Act. An applicant may qualify as the legal widow of an
insured individual if "the courts of the State in which he was domiciled at the time
of death, . . . would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly
married at the time . . . he died." Section 216(h)(1)(A)(i) of the Act. An applicant
who is not the "legal widow" of the insured individual still may be eligible for benefits
as a "deemed widow" if such applicant in good faith went through a marriage ceremony
with such individual resulting in a purported marriage between them which, but for
the legal impediment not known to the applicant at the time of such ceremony would
have been a valid marriage, and such applicant and the insured individual were living
in the same household at the time of [his] death . . . .
Section 216(h)(1)(B)(i) of the Act.
Claimant alleges that she and NH were married in a ceremonial marriage in March 1945
and remained married until his death in 1959. "The presumption of ceremonial marriage
is strong, especially where supporting evidence shows that the parties lived together
as husband and wife for many years, and it can be rebutted only by convincing evidence
to the contrary." Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00305.030(A). Although Claimant was unable to produce preferred proof such as a copy of a public
or religious record of marriage or an original certificate of marriage, as outlined
in POMS GN 00305.020, "the absence of a record in the place where the marriage is alleged to have occurred
will not in itself defeat the presumption." POMS GN
We first examined whether Claimant presented sufficient supporting evidence to support
a presumption of ceremonial marriage to NH. It does not appear that Claimant offered
sufficient secondary proof of marriage to meet the requirements of POMS GN 00305.025. Although Claimant provided a description of the marriage ceremony as outlined in
POMS GN 00305.025(B)(1), she is also required to provide at least one piece of secondary evidence of
the ceremony. See POMS GN
00305.025(B)(1). Secondary evidence may include: (1) a signed statement from the clergyman
or official who performed the ceremony; (2) statements of witnesses to the marriage
ceremony; (3) a newspaper account of the wedding; (4) statements from at least two
persons who have knowledge that a ceremony took place; (5) other probative evidence
that a ceremony took place, such as photos. See POMS GN 00305.025(B)(2). In this case, there is no acceptable secondary evidence of the marriage ceremony.
Even though the Agency was unable to obtain preferred or secondary proof of marriage,
the Agency may apply the presumption of ceremonial marriage where supporting evidence
shows that the parties lived together as husband and wife for many years. See POMS GN 00305.030(A). The following evidence may support a presumption of a marriage:
* Excerpts from naturalization certificates, deeds, immigration records, insurance
policies, or passports which indicate the parties as husband and wife;
* Records which show a marital relationship such as business, employment, bank, fraternal,
school, labor, church, or other records;
* Purchase agreements, contracts, or leases executed by both parties, letters to both
parties, or letters from one party to the other indicating a marital relationship.
POMS GN 00305.030(B)(2)(a). Claimant presented several pieces of supporting documentation. There are
birth certificates showing that Claimant and NH had two children in 1946 and 1947,
respectively. Claimant and NH are listed as husband and wife on mortgage documents
dated November 9, 1955. Additionally, Claimant is listed as NH's wife on two forms
from the United Mine Workers of America. Finally, NH's death certificate lists Claimant
as his surviving spouse. This evidence appears sufficient to support a presumption
of ceremonial marriage under POMS GN 00305.030.
We also considered whether Claimant and NH may have created a common-law marriage.
Alabama recognizes common-law marriage and treats it as "a co-equal, alternate method
of validating the connubial union of two people." Piel v. Brown, 361 So.2d 90, 93 (Ala. 1978). The elements of a valid common-law marriage in Alabama
are: (1) the capacity to marry; (2) present agreement or mutual consent to enter into
the marriage relationship; (3) public recognition of the existence of the marriage;
and (4) cohabitation or mutual assumption openly of marital duties and obligations.
See Adams v. Boan, 559 So.2d 1084, 1086 (Ala. 1990). The evidence suggests that Claimant and NH agreed
to enter a marriage relationship. The fact that the couple had two children together
and purchased a home as man and wife provides evidence of cohabitation.
In describing the manner in which a couple must live to gain public recognition, the
Adams court noted that "it may be made in any way which can be seen and known by men, such
as living together as man and wife, treating each other in the presence of third parties
as being in that relation, and declaring the relation in documents executed by them
whilst living together, such as deeds, wills, and other formal instruments." Id. at 1088 (quoting Maryland v. Baldwin, 112 U.S. 490, 495 (1884)). In Hall v. Duster, 727 So.2d 834, 837 (Ala. Civ. App. 1999), the court found a funeral program listing
the putative husband as the son-in-law of his putative wife's father to be "clearly
relevant" to the issue of whether the parties were recognized as husband and wife.
As previously noted, Claimant presented various documents listing her as NH's wife,
including mortgage documents, birth certificates, union documents, and his death certificate.
There is certain evidence to suggest that Claimant may not have had the capacity to
marry NH in March 1945. In this regard, Claimant's first husband, Mr. T~, indicated
in his application for retirement benefits that he divorced her on October 1, 1948.
Assuming that he provided the correct date of the divorce, Claimant would not have
been legally competent to marry NH in 1945. Alabama, however, recognizes a presumption
of actual marriage after the impediment to marriage is removed:
where parties who are competent to marry enter an illicit relation, with the manifest
desire and intention to live in a marital union, rather than in a state of concubinage,
and the obstacle to their marriage is subsequently removed, their continued cohabitation
raises a presumption of an actual marriage immediately after the removal of the obstacle
and warrants a finding to that effect.
Matthews v. Matthews, 67 So.2d 22, 24 (Ala. 1953). Because the evidence suggests that Claimant and NH
continued to live together as husband and wife after October 1, 1948, their common-law
marriage would have been legally valid after that date.
The existence of NH's prior marriages appears insufficient to rebut the presumption
of the validity of his most recent marriage to Claimant. The presumption "that a marriage
is legal and valid in all respects is one of the strongest known to the law" and "attaches
with full force to the latest marriage, the reason being that the presumption of innocence,
morality and legitimacy will counterbalance and preponderate against the presumption
of the former relations." Faggard v. Filowich, 27 So.2d 10, 12 (Ala. 1946) (quoting Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Co. v. Alexander, 3 So.2d 46, 48 (Ala. 1941)).
Claimant maintains both she and NH were divorced from their prior spouses at the time
of their marriage. Claimant does not have the burden of showing that she was "legally
competent" to contract marriage with NH. See Matthews, 67 So.2d at 23. Instead, the burden is on the party attacking the validity of the
most recent marriage to "not only establish the fact of the previous marriage, but
that such previous marriage has not been dissolved by divorce or death." Faggard, 27 So.2d at 12. Thus, Claimant is not required to affirmatively establish that either
her or NH's prior marriages dissolved by divorce or death. To attack the latest marriage,
the Agency would be required prove that the prior marriages had not ended. In describing
this burden, the Alabama Supreme Court stated that party attacking the marriage must
produce "legal evidence that the divorce courts of all the counties in the state which
would have jurisdiction of such a suit did not have a record of a decree of divorce."
Vinson, 69 S0.2d 431, 434 (Ala. 1953). Given that the Alabama Office of Vital Records indicated
that it does not maintain divorce records prior to 1950, it would appear that the
Agency cannot carry its burden.
As submitted, the facts suggest that Claimant is entitled to survivor's benefits as
NH's surviving spouse. Claimant presented evidence such as mortgage documents, birth
certificates, and union documents sufficient to establish the presumption of ceremonial
marriage where supporting evidence shows that the parties lived together as husband
and wife for many years under POMS GN 00305.030 and Alabama caselaw. Alternatively, this evidence appears sufficient to suggest the
existence of a valid common-law marriage under state law. Moreover, given that Alabama
does not maintain divorce records prior to 1950, it would be impossible to either
prove that either NH's or Claimant's prior marriages had not ended in divorce or death.
As a result, there is support under Alabama caselaw to apply the presumption of the
validity of the last marriage.
Mary Ann ~
Regional Chief Counsel
Joseph P. ~
Assistant Regional Counsel