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
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~.