Whether the evidence provided by Chasity Sanders (Claimant) meets the requirements
of South Carolina law to establish a common-law marriage to Jerry Powell, the number
For the reasons stated below, we believe the evidence is sufficient under South Carolina
law to establish Claimant is NH's common-law wife. Our conclusion is not based on
the court order from Anderson County, South Carolina, Probate Court because the order
does not meet the prerequisites set forth in Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c.
Rather, the evidence we found compelling under South Carolina law is the mutual statements
Claimant and NH provided on August 20, 2004, stating they were in a marital relationship
even though they had not had a marriage ceremony.
On November 21, 2005, after NH's death on October 25, 2005, Claimant, the mother of
NH's child, filed a claim for survivor benefits for the child. The child was born
June 21, 2003, and NH's paternity of the child is not disputed. On September 29, 2006,
Claimant filed a claim for mother's benefits and submitted a September 8, 2006, court
order from the Anderson County, South Carolina Probate Court finding she was NH's
common-law wife. Agency documents show NH applied for title II benefits in May 2003
and stated he had never been married. He applied for title XVI benefits in August
2004 and stated he and Claimant considered themselves to be in a marital relationship,
that they had been living together since their son was born, and were engaged. He
stated he had been living at his address since he was born in 1966. The same address
is shown as Claimant's address on her driver's license and motor vehicle tax records.
On August 20, 2004, NH and Claimant each signed separate but identical statements
that read as follows:
Understanding that this statement is for the use of the Social Security Administration,
I hereby certify that - (Jerry P~ or Chasity S~) and I consider ourselves in a marital
relationship. We are engaged to be married. We have lived together since the birth
of our son in June 2003. We consider ourselves in a marital relationship even though
we have not gone through an actual marital ceremony at this time.
When Claimant filed the claim for survivor benefits on behalf of her son, she stated
she and NH never married, but dated or lived together several years. They were not
living together when NH died. When she filed the application for mother's benefits,
she stated she and NH were married. She stated she had misunderstood the question
about marriage when she filed the application for NH's son. She had thought they had
to have a marriage license from a court or public official. She left NH in June 2005
and removed her belongings from the apartment they had shared in August 2005. Claimant
stated she did not get along with NH's parents and they may not complete statements
of marital relation. On another form completed with this application, she stated she
and NH had intended to have a ceremony, but every time they made plans, someone died
or got sick. Claimant further stated they understood they would live together forever
or until one died and the relationship could end through divorce. She stated they
lived like any married couple, paid bills together, bought food together, and kept
the house and yard together.
Claimant's father submitted a statement identifying himself as NH's father-in-law.
He stated he saw NH on weekends and at family gatherings. Claimant's father further
stated NH and Claimant were generally known as husband and wife and he considered
them husband and wife. He stated they had lived together three years as husband and
wife, they referred to each other as husband and wife, made a home together as husband
and wife, and where one went, the other went.
NH's father also completed a statement. He stated he lived in Georgia and saw his
son as often as he could, specifically naming Christmas and Thanksgiving. He sometimes
saw Claimant when he visited his son, and he did not know if they considered themselves
husband and wife. He had not heard them refer to each other as husband and wife. He
stated they did live together, but had separated two or three times and were not living
together at the time of NH's death.
A probate court order dated September 8, 2006, on a petition to establish heirs filed
by Claimant against the child she had by NH, found Claimant was NH's common-law wife.
The guardian ad litem for the child filed a report, stating she had talked with seven
witnesses besides Claimant, including NH's family members, Claimant's family members,
and mutual friends of NH and Claimant. NH's aunt stated NH and Claimant referred to
each other as husband and wife. NH's father and stepmother stated NH and Claimant
were not married, but they did not know if they married by common-law. Claimant's
parents stated NH and Claimant held themselves out to the public as husband and wife.
A mutual friend stated NH and Claimant regularly referred to each other as husband
and wife. Claimant also had a Sam's Club membership card issued in 2002, which states
on the face of the card "Complimentary Spouse." The guardian ad litem reported that
the member must be present when a complimentary spouse card is issued and therefore
NH and Claimant must have held themselves out as husband and wife when obtaining the
The file also contains an August 2003 Medicaid Approval Letter for low income families,
listing NH, Claimant, and their son Grayson G. P~. Also included is a court record
showing an action by Claimant against NH for protection from domestic abuse of an
intimate partner filed in September 2005.
Section 202(g) of the Act provides that the surviving spouse of a deceased individual
can be entitled to a mother's/father's insurance benefit. "Surviving spouse" is defined
in § 216(a)(2) to include a widow, as defined in § 216(c). Section 216(c) defines
"widow" to include the surviving wife of an individual who is the mother of his son
or daughter. NH's paternity of Claimant's child is not in dispute. To decide Claimant's
relationship as NH's surviving wife, we look to the laws of the state where NH had
a permanent home when he died. See § 216(h), 20 C.F.R. § 404.345(2006). NH was domiciled in South Carolina when he died.
However, he and Claimant did not have a formal marriage ceremony. Therefore, the issue
is whether Claimant and NH had a common-law marriage under South Carolina law.
Social Security regulations define common-law marriage as one considered valid under
a state's laws even though there is no formal marriage ceremony. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.726(a). A common-law marriage is a marriage between two persons free
to marry, who consider themselves married, live together as man and wife, and in some
states, meet certain other requirements. See id. Preferred evidence of a common-law marriage is: (1) if both the husband and wife
are alive, their signed statements and those of two blood relatives; (2) if either
the husband or wife is dead, the signed statements of the one who is alive and those
of two blood relatives; or (3) if both the husband and wife are dead, the signed statements
of one blood relative of each. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.726(b).
Claimant did not submit preferred evidence of a common-law marriage. See id. The file
contains statements signed by both NH and Claimant on August 20, 2004, that they were
in a marital relationship, but does not include any statements from blood relatives.
Claimant's father, Doug Sanders, stated that NH and Claimant lived together as husband
and wife, but Claimant reported in September 2006 that Mr. S~ was her adoptive father.
Therefore, his statement is not a statement from a blood relative.
The regulations state that if the applicant cannot provide preferred evidence of a
common-law marriage, he or she must explain why and provide other convincing evidence
of the marriage. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.726(c). Claimant did not explain why she did not get statements from
two blood relatives. However, her report that she is adopted, along with her assertion
in September 2006 that she did not get along with NH's parents and they may not complete
statements of marital relation, may be interpreted as an implicit explanation.
In determining whether Claimant provided other convincing evidence of the marriage,
as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.726(c), we note a September 8, 2006, court order from
the Anderson County, South Carolina Probate Court finding Claimant was NH's common-law
wife. Under Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c, the Agency is not bound by a State
trial court's determination to which it was not a party. However, the Agency cannot
ignore the decision if all four of the following prerequisites are met:
(1) an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits previously has been determined
by a State court of competent jurisdiction; (2) this issue was genuinely contested
before the State court by parties with opposing interests; (3) the issue falls within
the general category of domestic relations law; and (4) the resolution by the State
trial court is consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State.
SSR 83-37c; see Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973). We cannot conclude from the court order or the guardian
ad litem's report that the issue of Claimant's status as NH's common-law wife was
genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests. Rather, the guardian ad litem
acted more as a fact-finder for the court than an advocate for the child. Thus, we
do not believe the order of the probate court is convincing evidence of Claimant's
common-law marriage to NH.
As evidenced by the probate court order, South Carolina recognizes common-law marriage.
See Barker v. Baker, 499 S.E.2d 503 (S.C. 1998); Kirby v. Kirby, 241 S.E.2d 415 (S.C. 1978). A common-law marriage is formed when two parties contract
to be married. Callen v. Callen, 620 S.E.2d 59, 62 (S.C. 2005). No express contract is necessary; the agreement may
be inferred from the circumstances. Id. The fact finder is to look for mutual assent: the intent of each party to be married
to the other and a mutual understanding of each party's intent. Id. If these factual elements are present, the court should find as a matter of law that
a common-law marriage exists. Id. A party need not know every nuance of marriage law, but must at least know his actions
will render him married as that word is commonly understood. Callen, 620 S.E.2d at 63. If he does not comprehend that his actions will result in a legally
binding marital relationship, he lacks intent to be married. Id. The marriage must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence. Barker, 499 S.E.2d at 507. However, if a party claiming common-law marriage proves the parties
participated in apparently matrimonial cohabitation during which they had a reputation
in the community as being married, a rebuttable presumption arises that a common-law
marriage was created. Callen, 620 S.E.2d at 62. This presumption can be overcome by strong and cogent evidence
that the parties never in fact agreed to marry. Id.
The August 20, 2004, signed statements by NH and Claimant that they were in a marital
relationship even though they never had an actual marriage ceremony provides strong
support for finding mutual assent. The statements were identical, were signed on the
same day, and included an acknowledgement that the statements were for the use of
the Social Security Administration; these facts indicate not only the intent of each
to be married to the other, but the mutual understanding of each other's intent and
the possible legal consequences. Under the Callen holding, a finding of this mutual assent requires a finding that a common-law marriage
Moreover, these statements are consistent with other evidence, including NH's affirmative
statements in August 2004 that he and Claimant considered themselves to be in a marital
relationship, Claimant's descriptions of their relationship, and her father's statement
that NH and Claimant were generally known as husband and wife and he considered them
husband and wife. Numerous documents, including benefits applications, Claimant's
driver's license and motor vehicle tax assessments, and the Medicaid approval letter,
confirm that NH and Claimant were using the same address for several years. We further
note the guardian ad litem's report in the probate court action. She stated she had
talked with seven witnesses besides Claimant, including NH's family members, Claimant's
family members, and mutual friends of NH and Claimant. NH's aunt told the guardian
ad litem NH and Claimant referred to each other as husband and wife. Claimant's parents
stated NH and Claimant held themselves out to the public as husband and wife. A mutual
friend stated NH and Claimant regularly referred to each other as husband and wife.
Claimant also had a Sam's Club membership card issued in 2002, which states on the
face of the card "Complimentary Spouse." The guardian ad litem reported that the member
must be present when a complimentary spouse card is issued and therefore NH and Claimant
must have held themselves out as husband and wife when obtaining the card.
We also note that the assertions of a marital relationship are not strongly rebutted.
When NH filed an application for title II benefits in May 2003, he stated he had never
been married. However, this statement was more than a year before his affirmative
statements to the contrary in August 2004. Thus, even if he did not consider himself
married in May 2003, his intent may well have changed, especially considering the
birth of his son in June 2003. While NH's father stated he did not know if NH and
Claimant considered themselves husband and wife, he did not deny or refute the possibility.
He lived in another state and was not clear on how often he saw NH. He conceded he
sometimes saw Claimant when he visited his son.
We also believe South Carolina courts would not find significant Claimant's own statement
in November 2005 that she and NH never married, or NH's father's and stepmother's
statements to the guardian ad litem that NH and Claimant were not married, but they
did not know if they married by common-law. The South Carolina Supreme Court in Campbell v. Christian, 110 S.E.2d 1, 4 (S.C. 1959), found a woman's testimony that she did not consider
herself married did not defeat her claim to be a widow by common-law marriage. The
Court found that the woman's testimony related to the performance of a marriage ceremony,
rather than the existence of a marriage by common-law. Id. at 3, 4; see
also In Re Greenfield's Estate, 141 S.E.2d 916, 919 (1965) (conflicting opinions of the couple's marital status
was properly reconciled by the trial court's view that some witnesses mistakenly believed
that only ceremonial marriages are valid). The statements by NH and Claimant, as well
as the statements by NH's father and stepmother, support this view. NH's father and
stepmother acknowledged a difference between being "married" and being "married by
common-law." While stating they were "engaged" in August 2004, NH and Claimant both
asserted twice in the same statement that they "consider ourselves in a marital relationship
even though we have not gone through an actual marital ceremony at this time." When
Claimant filed her application for mother's benefits, she stated she previously had
misunderstood the question about marriage and had thought she and NH had to have a
marriage license from a court or public official. On another form completed with this
application, she stated she and NH had intended to have a ceremony, but every time
they made plans, someone died or got sick. We do not believe the desire or plan to
have a marriage ceremony provides strong evidence that NH and Claimant did not have
mutual assent to be married in the absence of a ceremony.
For the foregoing reasons, we believe the evidence presented is sufficient to establish
that Claimant was the common-law wife of NH under South Carolina law.
Mary Ann S~
Regional Chief Counsel
Assistant Regional Counsel