TN 2 (12-05)
PR 05605.029 Montana
A. PR 05-128 The Validity of a Common-Law Marriage in Montana
DATE: April 5, 2005
North Dakota will recognize a common law marriage validly entered into in another jurisdiction. Under Montana law the court will look to the parties' intent in satisfying the elements of a common-law marriage. The evidence provided does not demonstrate sufficient cohabitation and repute in Montana to establish a valid common law marriage.
For purposes of determining eligibility for widow's benefits, you have requested an opinion on whether a couple domiciled in the State of North Dakota (which does not permit the establishment of common law marriages) entered into a valid common law marriage in the State of Montana where the number holder (Darold S~) worked at times over a 30-year period, and the claimant (Marlys S~) traveled to visit him. You also requested an opinion as to whether statements provided by Darold's co-workers are sufficient evidence to show that the couple resided in Montana.
North Dakota law does not permit the establishment of common law marriages in that State.
Although North Dakota will recognize a common law marriage validly entered into in another jurisdiction, and Montana recognizes common law marriages, based on the facts before us, we do not believe there was sufficient cohabitation and repute to establish a valid common law marriage in Montana.
In a "Statement of Marital Relationship" completed by Marlys, she indicated that she and Darold began living together as husband and wife in North Dakota in 1968. She indicated in this statement that they lived in different cities in North Dakota from 1968 to the time of Darold's death in 1992. Marlys also indicated in her statement that she and Darold believed the State of North Dakota considered them legally married because they were together for seven years.
Marlys also alleges that she and Darold lived together as husband and wife, for some undisclosed periods of time, while he was working in Sydney, Montana. Evidence from Darold's co-workers and relatives of the couple indicated that Marlys and the couple's children would visit for weekends and longer during the summer when Darold was working in Montana. During these visits, the family would reside in a "5th wheel" camper. While it appears Darold possibly worked on and off in Montana over a 30-year period, according to co-workers, he and Marlys always returned "home" to North Dakota.
Under the provisions of the Social Security Act (the Act) and the Commissioner's regulations, a widow is entitled to benefits only if she was married to the number holder for at least nine months immediately before his death. 42 U.S.C. § 416(c), 20 C.F.R. § 404.335 (2004). The Act and the Commissioner's regulations provide that the laws of the State where the number holder was domiciled when he died will determine if there was a qualifying marriage. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345 (2004). ("To decide your relationship as the insured's widow or widower, we look to the laws of the State where the insured had a permanent home when he or she died."); see also POMS RS 00207.001 (the validity of the marriage is determined by the laws of the state of the number holder's domicile at the time of his or her death). In order for a common law marriage to be valid, it must have been contracted in a state where common law marriages are recognized. See POMS GN 00305.075.
Common law marriages cannot be formed in the State of North Dakota. See Cermak v. Cermak, 569 N.W.2d 280, 283 (1997) (citing Schumacher v. Great Northern Ry. Co. et al., 136 N.W. 85, 86 (1912)) (noting the 1890 legislature clearly intended to abrogate nonceremonial marriages); see also N.D. Cent. Code § 14-03-01 (providing North Dakota abrogated common law marriages shortly after statehood; unless the statutory requirements are met, the fact of cohabitation alone is insufficient to create a legally recognized marriage.)
To the extent that Marlys alleges that she and Darold entered into a common-law marriage in the State of Montana during her visits, the law and the facts that you provided to us do not support her allegation. Under Montana law, in order to establish the existence of a common law marriage, the proponent of the marriage must show:
the parties were competent to enter into a marriage;
assumption of such a relationship by mutual consent and agreement; and
Marriage of Geertz, 755 P.2d 34, 37 (1988) (citation omitted)); see also Mont. Code Ann. § 40-1-403. Assuming arguendo that Marlys and Darold satisfied the first two requirements, we do not believe the evidence you provided demonstrates sufficient cohabitation and repute in Montana.
Although there is no time requirement that a couple must have residency in Montana before a common law marriage can be effectuated, the court will look to the parties' intent in satisfying the elements of a common-law marriage.
See In re Estate of Murnion, 686 P.2d 893, 906 (1984) (although [the parties] made their agreement to be man and wife while residing in Washington, they did so with the intent of moving to Montana, and they followed through with that intention by moving to Montana soon thereafter.
All the elements of their common law marriage were fulfilled in Montana by virtue of their continuing agreement, cohabitation, mutual assumption, of the marital relationship, and public repute). The Montana Supreme Court has held, however, that short periods of cohabitation and holding out as husband and wife are insufficient to establish the reputation required by the third element. See Miller v. Sutherland, 309 P.2d 322, 328 (1957) (the Court found that a couple who agreed to be husband and wife, who lived in the same home for more than 10 years, but usually in separate bedrooms, and who held themselves out as husband and wife when registering at hotels or lodges, when giving greeting cards, and in executing mutual wills did not establish the existence of a valid common law marriage).
Here, Marlys only visited Darold while he was working in Montana. Although presumably they resided in the same camper during these visits, they never intended to make Montana their home or to move there. See Murnion, 686 P.2d at 899-900. Moreover, the couple entered into contracts, maintained bank accounts, and filed joint state income taxes all in North Dakota. Thus, we believe the alleged marital relationship was formed, maintained, and ended in North Dakota.
With regard to the statements provided by Darold's co-workers, as well as the couples' relatives, at most, they merely reflect that Marlys and Darold made their permanent home in North Dakota during their entire relationship, that they held themselves out as a married couple in North Dakota, and that Marlys occasionally visited Darold in Montana while he was working. We do not believe statements by relatives and co-workers that they believed Darold and Marlys were married when she visited him at his work sites in Montana are sufficient to constitute the degree of public repute necessary to form a valid common law marriage in the State of Montana.
Accordingly, because the common law marriages cannot be entered into in North Dakota, and alternatively, because the evidence you provided does not support the establishment of a valid common law marriage in Montana, Marlys is not the lawful widow of Darold for purposes of entitlement to benefits under the Act.
Deana R. E~-L~
Regional Chief Counsel,
Region VIII, Denver
B. PR 01-179 Montana State Law--Cohabitation Requirements to Establish Common-Law Marriage After Impediment Removed (Reference No. S2D8:vh CL-8)
DATE: June 27, 2001
In the State of Montana, a marriage entered into prior to the dissolution of an earlier marriage of one of the parties is prohibited. Parties to a prohibited marriage who cohabit after removal of the impediment are lawfully married as of the date of the removal of the impediment. The requirements to establish a common-law marriage must be proven.
You have asked whether Montana State law requirements are met to establish common law marriage after an impediment was removed.
We believe Montana State law requirements may have been met to establish a lawful common law marriage once an impediment was removed. However, we think it advisable that the case be further developed and that "preferred evidence" discussed in the Program Operations Manual System (POMS) be obtained. We also believe that SSA may be justified in pursuing administrative and criminal sanctions in light of the inconsistencies in this case.
Federal Law, Regulation, and Policy A claimant "may be entitled to benefits as the widow . . . of a person who was fully insured when he . . . died . . if . . . [the claimant is] the insured's widow . . . based upon a recognized relationship." 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a) (2000). The law of the state where the insured had a permanent home when he died will be applied to determine the relationship between the claimant and the insured. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.344, 404.345; see also POMS §§ GN 00305.001(A)(3), GN 00305.005(B)(1) ("The validity of a marriage is ordinarily determined by the law of the place where it occurred; if valid in that jurisdiction, it is usually held valid in other places"). The relationship requirement will be met if under state law the claimant would be able to inherit a wife's or widow's share of the insured's personal property if intestate. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345; see also POMS § GN 00305.001(A)(1).
"A common-law marriage is one considered valid under certain State laws even though there was no marriage ceremony"; it is between two people who are free to marry; these people consider themselves married; and they live together as man and wife. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.726. In the case where either the husband or wife is dead, preferred evidence of a common law marriage is "the signed statements from the living claimant and two blood relatives of the deceased person." See id. § 404.726(b)(2). If preferred evidence of a common law marriage cannot be obtained then an individual should explain why and submit other "convincing evidence" of a common law marriage. See id. § 404.726(c). Montana Law In the State of Montana, a marriage entered into prior to the dissolution of an earlier marriage of one of the parties is prohibited. See MONT. CODE ANN. (MCA) § 40-1-401 (2000). However, parties to a prohibited marriage "who cohabit after removal of the impediment are lawfully married as of the date of the removal of the impediment." Id. § 40-1-401(2). It is well established that common law marriages are recognized as valid in Montana. See, e.g., MCA § 40-1-403; In re Estate of Alcorn, 868 P.2d 629, 630 (Mont. 1994); In re Estate of Schanbacher, 595 P.2d 1171, 1175 (Mont. 1975); Memorandum, Validity of Common Law Marriage in Montana, RA VIII (Blair) to RC VIII August 22, 1985. To establish a common law marriage in Montana, the party asserting that a common law marriage exists has the burden on proving: (1) that the parties were competent to enter into a marriage; (2) that the parties assumed a marital relationship by mutual consent and agreement; and (3) that the parties confirmed their marriage by cohabitation and public repute. In re Estate of Hunsaker, 968 P.2d 281, 285 (Mont. 1998); Alcorn, 868 P.2d at 630 (quoting In re Marriage of Geertz, 755 P.2d 34, 37 (Mont. 1988)); Memorandum, Validity of Common Law Marriage in Montana, supra. The party asserting the existence of a common law marriage must prove all three elements. Hunsaker, 968 P.2d at 285. The existence of the marriage must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. Townsend Lumbar Company, 448 P.2d 148, 152 (Mont. 1968). Public policy generally favors the finding of a valid marriage. Geertz, 755 P.2d at 37.
The claimant, Eunice E. M~ (Eunice) filed an application for Widow's Insurance Benefits in December 2000. She claimed she was the widow of David E. M~ (M~), who died in Montana on October 28, 2000.
Eunice and M~ were ceremonially married on August 22, 1988 in Pocatello, Idaho.
Apparently, Eunice was already married at the time she "married" M~. Eunice had been married to Guy T. Vance from January 1956 until, she claimed, April 1, 1978. She married Benny J. J~ (J~) on August 15, 1978. J~ divorced Eunice on December 8, 1989, one year and four months after she "married" M~.
M~ was also already married at the time he "married" Eunice. He married Rita M. M~ (Rita) on September 5, 1969. Rita divorced M~ on November 10, 1997, nine years and three months after M~ "married" Eunice. M~ also may have been married to Peggy H~ (H~) at the time he "married" Eunice.
In an August 1994 application for Social Security disability benefits, M~ indicated he married H~ in February 1978 and the marriage had not ended as of such date. Eunice stated that she was unaware of this marriage. Further, M~ did not claim Eunice as his wife in the application. M~ also indicated that he was married to Kay W. R~ from November 1950 to January 1963.
Eunice has received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits since August 1984. In her application, she did not indicate that she was married or cohabiting with anyone. She has never modified her Social Security records to include M~ as her husband or to indicate that he was living with her.
Further, it appears from Eunice's SSI redetermination forms, that she did not have a spouse or anyone else living with her who was receiving money from the Federal government. M~ received Social Security disability insurance benefits in August 1993, which were converted to retirement benefits at age sixty-five. Eunice listed her address for purposes of her SSI benefits as Post Office Box 67, Whitehall, Montana.
Eunice filed an application for Widow's Insurance Benefits on December 11, 2000, as M~' widow. In December 2000, she completed a Statement of Marital Relationship claiming that they lived together in a "husband and wife relationship" from October 1988 until M~' death in October 2000. In addition, she indicated that they introduced each other as husband and wife.
In support of her claim for Widow's Insurance Benefits, Eunice provided a number of documents. In October 1995, on her application for a Montana Driver's License, Eunice listed her address as Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. In 1998, Eunice and M~ both owned a mobile home on which they owed tax. The tax notice was sent to "M~ David & Eunice" at Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. From September 2000 to March 2001, M~ and Eunice jointly insured a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker. They indicated their address was, and the Auto Policy Declarations were sent to "David & Eunice M~" at Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. In October 2000, Rocky Mountain Bank-Whitehall sent an account statement to "David E. M~" and "Eunice M~" at Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. On October 31, 2000, a Statement of Death by a Funeral Director indicated Eunice was M~' wife and her address was Post Office Box 718 Whitehall, Montana.
We first consider whether Eunice and M~ were competent to enter into a marriage. Under MCA § 40-1-401(1)(a), a party may not enter into a marriage prior to the dissolution of an earlier marriage. Thus, Eunice was not competent to enter into a marriage with M~, as a matter of law, until her dissolution of marriage with J~ was finalized on December 8, 1989.
Similarly, M~ was not competent to enter into a marriage with Eunice, as a matter of law, until his dissolution of marriage with Rita was finalized on November 10, 1997.
Of note, M~ indicated that he "married" H~ in February 1975 while he was married to Rita, and that his "marriage" to H~ continued as of August 1994. Further development of the circumstances of this marriage would aid the determination of the nature of Eunice's and M~' relationship.
Specifically, where were M~ and H~ married? Did they have a common law marriage? Were they ever divorced? In Montana, this marriage would have been prohibited per MCA § 40-1-401(1)(a). See also POMS § GN 00305.005(B)(1). There is no indication that the "marriage" to H~ met the requirements for a common law marriage subsequent to M~' dissolution of marriage with Rita on November 10, 1997, because M~ purportedly began living with Eunice on August 31, 1988, after they were ceremonially married.
Thus, it could be that M~' "marriage" to H~ would not raise an additional impediment to the alleged marriage in question or bar M~' competency. However, absent further development of M~' marriage to H~ we cannot give you a definitive answer.
If on the other hand, there was no valid marriage between M~ and H~, then Eunice and M~ were likely competent to enter into marriage after November 10, 1997, the date M~' divorce from Rita was finalized.
Assuming this to be true, we consider whether Eunice and M~ established a common law marriage by mutual consent and agreement. Notably, the mutual consent of the parties does not need to be expressed in any particular form.
Hunsaker, 968 P.2d at 285; In re Estate of Slavens, 509 P.2d 293, 295 (Mont. 1973) (quoting Welch v. All Persons, 278 P.2d 110, 115 (1929)). In addition, mutual consent can be implied from the conduct of the parties. Hunsaker, 968 P.2d at 285; Miller, 448 P.2d at 151. However, the mutual consent "must always be given with such intent on the part of each of the parties that marriage cannot be said to steal upon them unawares." State v. Newman, 213 P. 805, 807 (Mont. 1923).
In this case, we believe that the evidence could be interpreted as demonstrating that Eunice and M~ mutually consented and agreed to marriage. For example, Eunice and M~ were ceremonially married and began living together on August 31, 1988. Although they were not competent to enter into a marriage until after November 10, 1997, Eunice indicated that they lived in a "husband and wife relationship" after such date, until M~' death on October 28, 2000. In addition, in October 1995, on her application for a Montana Driver's License, Eunice listed her address as Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana, the same address M~ used. A 1998 mobile home tax receipt was addressed to "M~ David & Eunice" at Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. In September 2000, Eunice and M~ jointly insured a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker. They indicated that their address was, and the Auto Policy Declarations were sent to "David & Eunice M~" at Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. In October 2000, Rocky Mountain Bank-Whitehall sent an account statement to "David E. M~" and "Eunice M~" at Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana. On October 31, 2000, a Statement of Death by a Funeral Director indicated that Eunice was M~' wife and that her address was Post Office Box 718, Whitehall, Montana.
Recognizably, some evidence demonstrates that Eunice and M~ did not mutually consent and agree to marriage. Specifically, in M~' August 1994 application for Social Security disability benefits, M~ indicated that he married H~ in February 1978 and the marriage had not ended as of such date. In addition, he did not claim Eunice as his wife, although they were ceremonially married six years previously in August 1988, and allegedly had been living together since such time. Notably, Eunice began receiving SSI in August 1984. However, she never listed a spouse on her record, although she was married to J~ until December 8, 1989, and ceremonially married M~ on October 31, 1988.
Despite the confusion regarding their marital status while applying for and receiving Social Security benefits and assuming M~ was not validly married to H~, we believe that the evidence could be interpreted as demonstrating that Eunice and M~ mutually consented and agreed to marriage prior to M~' death. The evidence indicated that they were living together as husband and wife. Notably, they were jointly responsible for tax on a mobile home and for car insurance, and they had a joint bank account, all in the name of "Eunice and David M~."
Finally, we consider whether Eunice demonstrated that she and M~ confirmed their marriage by cohabitation and repute. As to repute, we should consider how the public viewed the couple. Hunsaker, 968 P.2d at 286; Miller, 448 P.2d at 152. Relevant to this inquiry is whether the couple held themselves out to the community as husband and wife. See Alcorn, 868 P.2d at 632. A common law marriage does not exist if the parties have kept their marital relationship a secret. In re Estate of Vandenhook, 855 P.2d 518, 520 (Mont. 1993) (citing Miller v. Sutherland, 309 P.2d 322, 327-28 (Mont. 1957)). As discussed above, we believe that the evidence could be interpreted as demonstrating that Eunice and M~ cohabitated after the impediment was removed and before M~' death, although they did not reveal this for the purposes of Social Security benefits. For example, Eunice stated that she and M~ lived together and one could assume Eunice and M~ lived in the mobile home they jointly owned. However, the mere fact that the parties cohabitated is not determinative of marriage, it is only a factor to consider. Alcorn, 868 P.2d at 357-58; Slavens, 509 P.2d at 294. Therefore, we consider how the public viewed Eunice and M~ and whether they held themselves out the community as husband and wife. Again, as discussed above, the evidence indicated that Eunice and M~ were jointly responsible for tax on a mobile home and for car insurance, and that they had a joint bank account, all in the name of "Eunice and David M~." In addition, Eunice indicated that they introduced each other as husband and wife. Thus, we believe that the evidence could be interpreted as demonstrating that Eunice and M~ cohabitated and held themselves out to the community as being husband and wife.
After reviewing the claims materials submitted to us and pertinent Montana case law, we believe that the evidence could be interpreted as demonstrating that a valid common law marriage existed between Eunice and M~ after an impediment was removed assuming again that there was no valid marriage between M~ and H~. Specifically, we believe that the evidence could be interpreted as demonstrating that Eunice and M~: (1) had mutual competency to enter into a marriage after November 10, 1997; (2) assumed a marital relationship by mutual consent and agreement; and (3) confirmed their marriage by cohabitation and repute. We note, however, that "preferred evidence" and additional development such as tax records and state probate records would add much to this interpretation and possibly change the outcome of this case. In addition, additional development of M~' "marriage" to H~ is advised.
Finally, we believe that SSA may be justified in pursuing administrative and criminal sanctions in light of the inconsistencies in this case. See POMS § GN 02604.100. As noted above, Eunice began receiving SSI in August 1984.
However, she never listed a spouse on her record although she was married to J~ until December 8, 1989, and ceremonially married to and living with M~ since October 31, 1988.
Deana R. E~-L~
Regional Chief Counsel,
Region VIII, Denver
William T. D~
C. PR 82-038 Common-Law Marriage -- Sojourn -- Montana, William J. G~, Widow's Insurance Benefits)
DATE: August 11, 1982
MARRIAGE -- COHABITATION AND REPUTATION (INCLUDING COMMON-LAW MARRIAGE) --
MONTANA--The burden of proof for establishing a common-law marriage in Montana rest upon the person alleging the valid marital relationship. In order to do so evidence must be presented to show the consent of the parties, conduct consistent with the existence of a martial relationship and how the public would comprehend their actions. Also, the claimant must come forward with evidence as to the frequency and duration of visits to the State in order to establish whether the relationship was established in the State of Montana. (G~, William J. - ~ - Region IX (~RELOAR) to RC 08/11/82)
By memorandum dated June 2,. 1982, you forwarded for our opinion the claims file of William J. G~, SSN, ~. The issue presented to us is whether the courts of Montana (if presented with the question) would hold that William J. G]~ and Gladys G~ contracted a common-law marriage in Montana, based upon their actions while visiting the State. After reviewing the memorandum dated May 14, 1982, by the Regional Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Region IX, and the accompanying claims file, we find that we are unable to issue an opinion in this matter without further development by the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Stated briefly, the facts of the case are that Gladys G~ has filed an application for widow's insurance benefits, as the widow (common-law or putative common-law) of William J. G~, who died in February, 1981, domiciled in California. William J. G~ and Gladys G~ have never been ceremonially married. They began living together in 1966 in Ontario, California, and lived together continuously, up to the time of William's death in February, 1981. During this entire time they remained domiciliaries of California, which does not permit common-law marriages to be contracted in that State. Gladys G~, in a Statement of Marital Relationship. dated September 14, 1981, stated that she and William J. G~ agreed to live together as husband and wife "indefinitely [sic] for life", that they have been known as such by their employers, relatives, and business associates, and that they "had always intended to get married but it just never seemed important to do it now." She stated that they put off having a ceremonial marriage because of their previous marriage failures (both of them had a prior marriage which ended in divorce), and because of William J. G~ drinking problem.
The claims file accompanying your request for our opinion reflects that the claimant and William J. G~ "sojourned" in the States of Colorado and Montana. However, we could find no statements by the claimant or other individuals, or other documentation regarding such visits to Montana. !_/ We note that a report of contact in the claims file dated December 31, 1981, by SSA Claims Representative N. G~ (the report does not indicate with whom the contact was made), states that the claimant and William J. G~ visited Bernard Z~ Hot Springs, Montana, in the summer". There is also an annotation on this document that this individual is "D's cousin" (we assume this means the deceased, William J ' G~). However, there is no indication as to the number, duration, or purpose of such visits, nor any mention whatsoever of the actions or intentions of William J. G~ and Gladys G~ during such alleged visits. The claimant listed Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Z~, Hot Springs, Montana, as cousins in her aforementioned statement dated September 14, 1981; however, again, there are no details in the file regarding any visits to these relatives. Further development on these issues needs to be undertaken before we are able to render a legal opinion on the possibility of a sojourn common-law marriage between William J. G~ and Gladys G~ in Montana.
Montana does in fact recognize common-law marriage. See, § 4~-1-403, MCA. The Supreme Court of Montana, in discussing the elements of a valid common-law marriage, stated:
The so called "common-law marriage' is recognized as valid in this state, but, to be effective there must be the mutual consent of parties able to consent and competent to enter into a ceremonial marriage, and the assumption of such relationship, by consent and agreement, as of a time certain, followed by cohabitation and repute.
Thus the parties must enter upon a course of conduct to establish their repute as man and wife. This course of conduct cannot be partial, it must be complete and sincere ....
When we speak of repute we mean reputation, being the character and status commonly ascribed to one's actions by the public... The burden of establishing the marriage was on appellant. . .
Miller v Townsend Lumber Company, 448 P. 2d. 148, 152 (Mont. 1968). (Quoting Elliott v. Industrial Accident Board, 53 P.2d 451, 454 (Mont. 1936).
The above-quoted language outlines the tests to be applied and indicates the type of information needed to conclude that the Montana courts would find that a common-law marriage has taken place.
As stated above, without further documentation regarding the intentions of the parties while sojourning in Montana, as well as the course of their conduct and how the public comprehended their actions while in Montana, (in addition to the answers to our previously raised questions, i.e., number, duration and purpose of such visits), we are unable to render a legal opinion as to whether or not the courts of Montana would hold that William J. and Gladys G~ contracted a common-law marriage in Montana, based upon their actions while visiting the State.
If, after you have received the further development outlined above in this case, you wish to resubmit it to us for an opinion, we would be happy at that time to promptly issue an opinion, based on the Montana statutes, case law, and precedential Office of General Counsel opinions.
1/ The claimant, in the aforementioned Statement of Marital Relationship, reported that she and William J. G~ lived together in Aurora and Englewood, Colorado, from June 13, 1980, to June 23, 1980; however, there is no similar documentation of any temporary residence in Montana. You have not asked us for an opinion in this case under Colorado law, and we note in this respect, that the Social Security Administration, in its May 14, 1982, memorandum, relies on our previous memorandum, Possible Common-Law Marriage--Clifford J. L~, RA VIII (Swope), to ARA, IX, March 2, !982, regarding sojourn marriages in Colorado.