PR 05505.030 Nebraska
A. PR 04-176 Reply to request for state law regarding estoppel in the context of marriage
DATE: May 12, 2000
This opinion discusses the presumptions of marriage and the doctrine of estoppel in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.)
You have asked what Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska statutes and/or case law provide regarding presumptions of valid marriages, the doctrine of estoppel and in what context it arises, how estoppel applies in the context of bigamous marriages, how the Social Security Administration (SSA) interprets the state's law, and what the POMS provide regarding each state.
Missouri statute provides that estoppel must be pled as an affirmative defense. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 509.090 (1999). Case law states that "[i]t is generally recognized that a person may be precluded from attacking the validity of a foreign divorce decree if, under the circumstances, it would be inequitable for him to do so." See Sumners v. Sumners 645 S.W.2d 205, 209 (Mo. App. 1983).
Missouri has applied the doctrine of estoppel in several situations. Equitable estoppel was applied to prevent one spouse from claiming an inheritance or interest in the estate of a deceased spouse. See, e.g., Crane v. Deacon, 253 S.W. 1068, 1072-73 (Mo. 1923). In Littlefield v. Littlefield, 203 S.W. 636 (Mo. App. 1918) the court held that remarriage, perhaps with knowledge that her divorce was invalid, precluded the plaintiff from asserting a claim in her former husband's property. Equitable estoppel prevented a husband from raising a subject matter jurisdiction objection in Yun v. Yun, 908 S.W.2d 787 (Mo. App. 1995).
Kansas statutes address estoppel in the context of premarital agreements. The statute expressly states that "equitable defenses," including laches and estoppel are "available to either party" in a action asserting a claim for relief under a premarital agreement. Kan. Stat. Ann. § 23-809 (1999).
Kansas also applied the doctrine of estoppel in Martin v. Martin, 623 P.2d 527 (Kan. App. 1981). The court stated that a litigant who has acquiesced in the judgment of a trial court by assuming the burden or by accepting the benefits of the judgment cannot thereafter appeal from that judgment, but the rule is not strictly applied in divorce cases. When a divorce is not challenged, the remarriage of the appellant does not constitute acquiescence. Id. at 529-30. The Kansas Supreme Court held in Justus v. Justus, 495 P.2d 98 (Kan. 1972), that the former husband was estopped from challenging the validity of the original divorce decree since he had remarried on the strength of it.
Like Kansas, Iowa statute provides for the use estoppel in actions concerning premarital agreements. The statute states, "equitable defenses . . . including laches and estoppel, are available to either party." Iowa Code § 596.11 (1999). Iowa does not require that estoppel be specifically pled so long as the facts lending themselves to the doctrine are in the petition. See Winegard v. Winegard, 278 N.W.2d 505, 510 (Iowa 1979); Dierking v. Bellas Hess Superstore, Inc., 258 N.W.2d 312, 314 (Iowa 1977).
Estoppel prevented a common law husband in Iowa from contesting potential jurisdictional defects in his wife's former divorce several years prior because he had prior knowledge of the defects and in fact had helped his wife obtain the divorce decree in question. See Winegard, 278 N.W.2d at 509-10.
Similarly, Nebraska statute provides, "equitable defenses . . . including laches and estoppel, are available to either party." Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 42-1008 (1999).
Equitable estoppel was also applied in Nebraska to bar a putative father from preventing the adoption of the child where the he and the mother discussed adoption, but no agreement was reached and the father failed to comply with statutory provision which required him to file a notice of intent to claim within five days of the child's birth. See Friehe v. Schaad, 545 N.W.2d 740, 748-49 (Neb. 1996).
PRESUMED VALIDITY OF MARRIAGE
In Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa an individual's second marriage is presumed valid absent proper rebuttal evidence.
Case law in Missouri establishes the presumption of validity for an individual's second marriage. See Sumners, 645 S.W. 2d at 208 citing Carr v. Carr, 232 S.W.2d 488, 489 (Mo. 1950). In situations where a first spouse contests the validity of a second marriage, he or she has the burden of rebutting the presumed validity of the second marriage. The burden of proof is "the most cogent and satisfactory evidence"which is "strong, distinct, and conclusive." See Lucas v. Lucas, 909 S.W.2d 365, 369-70 (Mo. App. 1995), citing Carr, 232 S.W.2d at 489 and Estate of Holloway v. Whitaker, 697 S.W.2d 551, 552 (Mo. App. 1985).
Kansas also presumes a person's second marriage is valid. See Hawkins v. Weinberger 368 F.Supp. 896, 900 (D. Kan. 1973) citing Harper v. Dupree, 345 P.2d 644 (Kan. 1959). Where two purportedly valid marriages are entered into in good faith, the law will presume the second is valid with the burden on the claimant from the first marriage to rebut that presumption. The burden of proof for rebuttal is clear, strong, and satisfactory which is so persuasive that it leaves no room for reasonable doubt. See Chandler v. Central Oil, 853 P.2d 649, 652 (Kan. 1993).
In Iowa, there is a strong presumption that the second marriage is valid. The party seeking to rebut the presumption has the burden of proof to present evidence that is strong and persuasive. See Miller v. AMF Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc., 328 N.W.2d 348, 351-52 (Iowa App. 1982); In re Estate of Weems, 258 Iowa 139 N.W.2d 922, 924 (Iowa 1966).
Nebraska statute provides that a properly filed marriage license is presumptive of a valid marriage. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 42-116 (1999). When the validity of a marriage is attacked by either of the parties, the other party may file a bill or petition requesting that the marriage be affirmed and upon "weight and sufficiency" of proof, the marriage will be declared valid by a decree or sentence of the court and is conclusive unless reversed on appeal. Neb. Stat. Rev. § 42-120 (1999). The burden of proof is on the party who asserts that the marriage is valid. See In re Estate of McCartney v. McCartney, 330 N.W.2d 723 (1983). A presumption of valid marriage arises upon proof of a ceremonial marriage. See McCartney 330 N.W.2d at 724.
SSA'S INTERPRETATION OF STATE LAW
SSA has been a party to lawsuits which interpret state law in several cases. In Missouri, SSA's position that the plaintiff was not the wage earner's widow and, thus, not entitled to widow's benefits was upheld. See Everetts v. Apfel, 63 F. Supp. 2d 1020 (E.D. Mo. 1999). In that case, the plaintiff stated that she was first forced into marriage after she became pregnant as the result of rape. However, she never regarded herself as married and the union was annulled, but she married another man prior to the annulment. Therefore, her second marriage was bigamous and void from the beginning. Thus, her second marriage was not valid and she was properly denied widow's benefits. In another case, two women claimed that their children were entitled to survivorship benefits on the deceased's record. The ALJ was ordered to give the first wife the opportunity to present clear and convincing evidence showing that her divorce not valid. See Riley v. Califano, 498 F.Supp. 589 (W.D. Mo. 1980). Riley states that Missouri recognizes the defense of laches to an attack on the validity of a divorce decree. Riley, 498 F.Supp. at 593.
As noted above, in Hawkins, 368 F.Supp 896, SSA properly denied the plaintiff's application for widow's benefits because her alleged husband entered into a subsequent ceremonial marriage with another woman. The husband's second marriage enjoyed the presumption of validity over the plaintiff's previous common law marriage. Id. at 898.
In Iowa, in a situation where the couple married, divorced, and ultimately cohabitated again, without another ceremonial marriage, SSA determined that a common-law marriage was established and the wife was awarded widow's benefits upon her husband's death. See Blessing v. Deere & Company, 985 F.Supp. 886, 890 (S.D. Iowa 1997).
Because Nebraska requires a six month interlocutory period after a divorce before any subsequent marriage, an applicant who violated that provision was properly denied widow's benefits. See McGuire v. Califano, 440 F.Supp. 1031 (D. Neb. 1977). It was further determined that the ALJ has the power to interpret state law, and the agency is not required to accept the judgment of a lower state court on the issue of widow's status if it appears the state's highest court would take a different position. Id.
The POMS does not specifically address the issue of estoppel for Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, or Nebraska.
BIGAMOUS MARRIAGES AND ESTOPPEL
With respect to estoppel in the context of a bigamous marriage, all four states have determined that bigamous marriages are void. See Mo. Rev. Stat. 451.030 (1999); Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-3601(1999); Neb. Rev. Stat. § 42-103 (1999); Iowa Code § 595.19 (1999). See also State v. Fitzgerald, 726 P.2d 1344 (Kan. 1986). However, in Iowa, if the parties live together after the death or divorce of the former spouse, the marriage will then be valid. Iowa Code § 595.19 (2) (1999). As discussed above, all four states also apply the doctrine of estoppel.
We hope that this memorandum answers your questions.
Frank V. S~ III
Regional Chief Counsel
Pamela J. M~
Assistant Regional Counsel