PR 05705.006 California
A. PR 06-348 Entitlement to Widow's Benefits as a Putative Spouse of Wage Earner T~ N. V.
DATE: September 29, 2006
The NH and claimant did not have a wedding ceremony that was solemnized by a third party. California courts have stated that a lack of solemnization is not a prerequisite to finding a putative marriage. The lack of a solemnized marriage still requires facts to show that the person had an objective good faith belief in a valid marriage. The objective good faith of a person's belief in a valid marriage is also determined by his or her familiarity with the laws of California. The claimant cannot communicate in English and was unfamiliar with CA marriage laws. Because of language problems, they assumed obtaining a marriage license was all that was required. California courts would likely find that the actions of the claimant and the NH are indicative of their good faith belief in a valid marriage. )
You asked for an opinion as to the validity of the marital relationship between T~ N. V. and P~ T. T. N. (the claimant). You also asked whether the lack of evidence of a marriage ceremony and lack of a properly filed marriage certificate would preclude a finding of a putative marriage.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
The wage earner, T~ N. V., died on January 1, 2000, just a few months shy of his 57th birthday. On February 1, 2000, the claimant received a lump sum death benefit based on her statement that she was Mr. V~'s spouse and was living with him at the time of death. She stated that they had a "clergy/public official" type marriage on April 20, 1992. She was unable to provide proof of the ceremony. She did submit a license to marry, obtained by herself and Mr. V~ on April 20, 1992, with an expiration date of July 19, 1992. The license was issued in Orange County, California, but was never recorded. The license includes a portion at the bottom of the form for solemnization, but this portion is blank.
The claimant alleges that Mr. V~ was previously married; this marriage ended in divorce on February 16, 1988. The claimant herself was previously married in Canada on July 1, 1985, and later divorced on December 1, 1987, in Santa Ana, California. Of importance, however, is that the claimant had only lived in Canada a brief time from 1975-1979. The claimant then married Mr. V~ on April 20, 1992. The local Social Security office reported on May 7, 2004, that the original marriage certificate was never sent to the recorder's office for filing.
Although the claimant has been in the United States since 1979, she was still using an interpreter at the time her 2004 application was filed. Her inability to communicate in English has been documented by the local field office. She provided the following statement through an interpreter:
I am not uncertain if we had a marriage ceremony. We obtained a license but because of language problems thought this was all we had to do to be married. . . . I have always assumed I was married to Mr. V~.
In response to further inquiry by the field office, the claimant appears to believe that she did have a ceremonial or ritual wedding on December 20, 1991 (prior to the April 20, 1992 marriage license date), at Bill Wong Restaurant in Montreal, Canada. She also stated that the "wedding reception" was informal and that "[n]o officiated Member attended the reception." She also submitted pictures from the "reception."
As early as 1992, and continuing through 2000, the claimant and Mr. V~ filed joint federal income tax returns as a married couple. On November 20, 1999, Mr. V~ hand wrote a directive, naming the claimant as his "wife" and as the "sole responsible party" in the preparation of his funeral and burial in Canada. Both parties, "T~ N. V. and T~ T. P. N., H/W" were listed on a substitution of trustee and deed of reconveyance. Presumably, they purchased the property jointly and the "H/W" designation indicates husband and wife. Finally, Mr. V~'s death certificate names the claimant as his wife.
A. Federal Laws and Policy
In order to establish entitlement for spousal benefits, the claimant must show that she is Mr. V~'s widow under one of the methods set out by the Social Security Act. Under section 216(h)(1)(A)(ii) of the Act, an applicant that is not validly married under state law may be deemed the widow, "if such applicant would, under the laws applied by such courts in determining the devolution of intestate personal property, have the same status with respect to the taking of such property as a . . . widow . . . of such insured individual." 42 U.S.C.§ 416(h)(1)(A)(ii). The Act and corresponding regulations require that we look to state law to determine the marital relationships of the parties. See also, 20 C.F.R. § 404.344 ("[t]o decide your relationship to the insured, we look first to State laws."), and § 404.345 ("[t]o 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.").
The California Family Code provides:
(a) If a determination is made that a marriage is void or voidable and the court finds that either party or both parties believed in good faith that the marriage was valid, the court shall:(1) Declare the party or parties to have the status of a putative spouse. . . .
Cal. Fam. Code § 2251.
Several California courts have expressly stated that a lack of solemnization is not a prerequisite to finding a putative marriage. See, e.g. Welch v. State of California, 100 Cal. Rptr. 2d 430 (2000); In re Marriage of Vryonis, 248 Cal. Rptr. 807 (1988). However, the lack of a solemnized marriage still requires facts to show that the person had an objective good faith belief in a valid marriage. See, e.g. DePasse v. Harris, 119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 143 (2002) (husband's admission and awareness of a license requirement that was not obtained due to wife being on death bed could not have been a good faith belief of a valid marriage, despite solemnization by a hospital Chaplain); Welch, 100 Cal. Rptr. 2d 430 (finding a lack of objective good faith where the there was no marriage license, no solemnization ceremony, the surviving spouse had been legally married and divorced twice prior, and admitted that she "didn't feel that the paper [marriage license] would mean any more or less"); Vryonis, 248 Cal. Rptr. 807 (finding that a private Muslim marriage ceremony where there was no solemnization by a third party, no marriage license or recording of the license, no cohabitation by the parties, no assumption of any support obligations for one another, no joint property acquired, separately filed tax returns as single individuals, and no holding out as husband and wife, all showed a lack of an objective good faith belief in a valid California marriage).
In addition to the basic indicia of a valid marriage (i.e. a marriage license and marriage ceremony), the objective good faith of a person's belief in a valid marriage is also determined by his or her familiarity with the laws of California. Germane to the instant matter is the notion of the "inexperienced foreigner." In the case of Santos v. Santos, 89 P.2d 164 (Cal. App. 1939), the court dealt with similar facts to those here. In Santos, the putative wife was a widow at the time she alleged a marriage to the defendant. The new couple was issued a marriage license. Neither could speak English and the couple was not familiar with the marriage laws of California. Believing they were married, they commenced living together as husband and wife. Even though the parties had no marriage, the court determined that the putative wife was entitled to property rights as if married. Cf. Flanagan v. Capital Nat. Bank of Sacramento, 3 P.2d 307 (Cal. 1931) (putative wife was not an "inexperienced foreigner" where she lived all her life in California, had been previously legally married and divorced, and had previously discussed with her deceased putative husband whether to procure a marriage license.)
Here, it is our opinion that there are enough indicia of an objective good faith belief in the claimant's status as Mr. V~'s wife to sustain a finding of a putative marriage. First, the claimant likely fulfills the "inexperienced foreigner" requirement. She did not live in California her whole life. See Flanagan, 3 P.2d 307 (Cal. 1931) (finding that plaintiff was not an inexperienced foreigner as she had lived in California her whole life). It is also documented that the claimant cannot communicate in English. See Santos, 89 P.2d 164 (Cal. App. 1939) (finding an inability to speak English and unfamiliarity with California marriage laws). Although the claimant has been in the United States since 1979, she is still unable to communicate in English. Therefore, it is not unbelievable that the claimant could have been confused over California marriage requirements. In fact, the claimant stated, "because of language problems [we] thought [obtaining a marriage license] was all we had to do to be married."
Second, we do not believe that the claimant's prior marriage would preclude putative spouse status. Although some California cases have found that a prior marriage and divorce supported the courts' finding of a lack of good faith in the validity of a marriage, the claimant's prior marriage and divorce are not dispositive. See, e.g. Welch, 100 Cal. Rptr. 2d 430. First, we note that the claims file does not contain a determination of whether the claimant's prior marriage in Canada, and subsequent divorce in California, where ever legally accomplished. It is entirely possible that the claimant also did not comply with Canada's marriage requirements. Although Canada's marriage requirements may be similar to California's, a foreign marriage is not proof that the claimant was aware of California's marriage requirements.
Although the claims file materials suggest that Mr. V~ and the claimant did not have a wedding ceremony that was solemnized by a third party, it appears that the claimant had an objectively reasonable basis for believing in good faith that she was married to Mr. V~. Like the plaintiff in Santos, the claimant and Mr. V~ made some attempt to comply with California marriage requirements by obtaining a marriage license. Unlike plaintiffs in DePasse, Flanagan, or Welch, the claimant did not know or deem it unnecessary to follow all the other requirements of a legal marriage. Quite the contrary is true. As the claimant stated through her interpreter, "[w]e obtained a license but because of language problems thought this was all we had to do to be married." Furthermore, the claimant stated that she had a wedding "reception" on December 20, 1991. Though the timing of the reception pre-dates the marriage license (April 20, 1992), because California courts apply the putative spouse doctrine "broadly," the fact that the couple got the timing requirements backwards (i.e. having the ceremony prior to obtaining a marriage license) would not preclude a putative marriage finding.
Furthermore, under the broad application of the putative spouse doctrine, California courts will likely find that the actions of the claimant and Mr. V~ are indicative of their good faith belief in a valid marriage. The claimant and Mr. V~ cohabitated for twelve years, they owned property jointly, the file shows that others believed them to be married, they filed joint tax returns as husband and wife beginning in 1992, the claimant is listed on the death certificate as his wife, and Mr. V~ designated the claimant as his wife and sole person responsible for burial arrangements in Canada. These are all facts supporting the claimant's statement, "I have always assumed I was married to Mr. V~."
Despite the lack of a solemnized marriage, there are enough indicia of the claimant's good faith belief in a valid marriage. Based on the information developed to date, California courts applying the putative marriage doctrine broadly would likely deem the claimant a putative spouse of Mr. V~.
B. PR 86-009 Clifton E. W~, ~, Putative Marriage -- California, (Claim of Sharron D. W~)
DATE: March 3, 1986
MARRIAGE -- CALIFORNIA
A judicial determination of the existence of a putative marriage under California law, premised upon a proper showing of good faith, would be valid for all state law purposes relevant to Social Security entitlement, if it is otherwise consistent with the law of the state as interpreted by the Supreme Court. (W~, Clifton E.; RA IX; S~; February 7, 1986)
You have asked for our advice as to the impact on California's putative spouse doctrine of a recent decision by an intermediate state appellate court. The case, W~ v. County of Imperial, 145 Cal. App. 3d 980, 193 Cal. Rptr. 820 (1983), was brought to your attention by the plaintiff therein, Sharron W~, 1_/ who claims entitlement to Social Security Survivor's benefits as the putative spouse of Clifton W~.
W~ involved an appeal of a wrongful death action. The case had been dismissed below based on the trial court's determination that the plaintiff (Sharron) was not entitled to sue for the decedent's (Clifton's) wrongful death.
An action for wrongful death may be brought by a decedent's dependent "putative spouse" under section 377 of California's Code of Civil Procedure ("CCP"). The statute defines "putative spouse" as "the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid." CCP §377(b) (2). The trial court in W~ held that although Sharron believed in good faith that her common law marriage was valid, she, nevertheless, failed to qualify as Clifton's putative spouse. Citing Miller v. Johnson, 214 Cal. App. 2d 123, 29 Cal. Rptr. 251 (1963), and Estate of Krone, 83 Cal. App. 2d 766, 189 P.2d 741 (1948), the court stated: -
"The putative marriage is one that has to be solemnized in due form and celebrated in good faith on the part of one or both of the parties, but which by reason of legal infirmity is either void or voidable. The marriage must be solemnized, authenticated with a certificate of registration of marriage filed in California."
W~ v. County of Imperial, 193 Cal. Rptr. at 821.
The appellate court rejected this statement of the law, ruling that "lack of solemnization does not necessarily mean bad faith precluding finding a putative marriage." Id. The reviewing court further noted that CCP section 377(b) (2) called only for a good faith belief without specifying solemnization as essential to a finding of good faith. Since the trier of fact had expressly determined that Sharron believed in good faith that she and Clifton were married, the court of appeals ruled that Sharron was eligible to sue as Clifton's putative spouse under the terms of CCP section 377. Id. at 822.
Pursuant to section 216(h) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. ~416(h), it is the Secretary's responsibility in adjudicating matters of family status to "determine the law of the state as it has been declared by the Supreme Court of the State." Cain v. Secretary of HEW, 377 F.2d 55, 58 (4th Cir. 1967). If the decision of a lower court appears to conflict with what the state supreme court would find were the point presented to it, the lower court decision may be disregarded. Id.; accord GC opinions re John B. D~ September 24, 1982; Arthur M~, November 15, 1984. Accordingly, W~ is binding only insofar as it is consistent with the approach indicated by the California Supreme Court.
The decision in W~ is premised upon two earlier appellate court decisions, Sancha v. Arnold, 114 Cal. App. 2d 772, 251 P.2d 67(1953) and Santos v. Santos, 32 Cal. App. 2d 62, 89 P.2d 164(1939). The W~ court, however, did not discuss these cases at all and, indeed, it appears that neither decision supports the proposition for which it is cited. Sancha bypasses the putative marriage question, turning instead on equitable principles of contract enforcement. Santos does squarely address the requirements of a putative marriage, the court finding the requisite good faith in the absence of solemnization. But the court in W~ failed to observe a critical distinction between the couple in Santos and the W~. Unlike Sharron and Clifton, Mr. and Mrs. Santos did not speak English nor were they generally familiar with California law or U.S. customs. The Santoses, therefore, fit within a narrow exception to the solemnization requirement applicable to "inexperienced foreigners" only. See Flanagan v. Capitol National Bank of Sacramento, 213 Cal. 664, 3 P.2d 307(1931); GC opinion re Coy H~, February 4, 1983.
Aside from the bare citations to Sancha and Santos, the court in W~ made no effort to reconcile its ruling with the relevant precedents. In particular, there is no discussion of the leading decisions by the State Supreme Court, Vallera v. Vallera, 21 Cal.2d 681, 134 P.2d 761(1943) and Flanagan, cited above. In Coy H~, cited above, we undertook an exhaustive examination of the putative spouse doctrine under California law, concluding on the strength of Vallera and Flanagan that, as a matter of law, a license and solemnization are necessary to establish good faith, except in very rare circumstances. 2_/ There is nothing in W~ to persuade us to abandon this analysis. We, there- fore, reaffirm the rationale and ruling articulated in Coy H~.
You also have asked whether a finding of putative spouse status under California's wrongful death statute, CCP section 377, is controlling as well with regard to matters of property division and intestate succession. As you will have gathered from the above discussion, it appears to us that the test for putative spouse status under California law is the same regardless of the particular right (property division, standing to sue, etc.) at issue. 3_/ Thus, a judicial determination of the existence of a putative marriage, premised upon a proper showing of good faith, would be valid for all state law purposes relevant to Social Security entitlement, if it is otherwise consistent with the law of the state as interpreted by the Supreme Court. 4_/
Turning to the instant claim, it is clear that Sharron does not qualify as Clifton's putative spouse. In a statement dated October 30, 1978, Sharron declared that she and Clifton obtained a marriage license in May 1977 but did not undergo solemnization. Because Clifton and Sharron were not "inexperienced foreigners," their failure to take all steps necessary toward the creation of a legally valid marriage cannot be excused on grounds of justifiable ignorance. Indeed, Sharron admitted in her statement that she and Clifton knew they were not married and merely planned "eventually to get married" at some time in the future. 5_/ Therefore, since Sharron plainly lacked a good faith belief in the validity of her marriage, as evidenced by the failure to have the marriage solemnized, she cannot be considered Clifton's putative spouse under California law.
1_/ Sharron has since married Richard J~, taking J~ as her surname.
2_/ Excepted from this rule are "inexperienced foreigners, like the Santoses, with reason to believe that a license alone is sufficient.
3_/ Of course it is always possible that California's highest court may depart from past precedents, liberalizing putative spouse requirements across the board. Alternatively the Supreme Court could draw a distinction between the qualifications for standing under section 377(b) of the Civil Code and the definition of putative spouse status for inheritance purposes, which would dispel any present ambiguity. Consequently, we suggest that you submit for our review any claims relying on a California Supreme Court ruling addressing putative spouse status in the face of a purely common-law "marriage," regardless of whether they arose in the context of inheritance or "standing to sue" proceedings.
4_/ Even if this adjudication appears to be legally correct, it is still not binding unless it resulted from genuinely contested proceedings, see, e.g., CG opinion re John D~, cited above.
5_/ It is doubtful whether the trial court would have made a finding in Sharron's favor on the "good faith" issue had it had before it the type of evidence (particularly this admission) present in the claims file.