BASIC (10-05)

PR 05705.027 Mississippi

A. PR 08-022 Recognition of Louisiana Putative Marriage in Mississippi Number Holder - William H. G~ (NH) Claimant - Diana P~

DATE: November 16, 2007

1. SYLLABUS

The claimant's Louisiana's putative marriage does not appear to be a valid marriage. Neither Louisiana case law nor statutes describe the favorable civil effects a putative marriage produces. Mississippi Courts recognize valid marriages contracted in other states but has not considered the effect of a putative marriage contracted in another state. Therefore, the claimant would not be entitled to widow's benefits if she had to rely on recognition of her putative marriage. She might however be entitled to benefits if her marriage was deemed valid when she received mother's benefits, assuming she meets the other requirements of 20 CFR Sec. 404.335.

2. OPINION

QUESTION

You have asked whether Mississippi would recognize a putative marriage contracted in Louisiana.

ANSWER

We conclude that Mississippi would not recognize a putative marriage contracted in Louisiana.

BACKGROUND

Diana P~ (Claimant) and William H. G~ (NH) entered into a ceremonial marriage in Louisiana in 1968. The marriage ended when NH died in April 2007 while domiciled in Mississippi. Claimant and NH had been separated since 1993. Claimant received mother's benefits on NH's record in 1985 and 1986. She filed for widow's benefits after NH's death.

Barbara R~ filed for divorced spouse's benefits in 2002, and presented evidence that she married NH in 1963 and divorced him in September 1980. NH did not mention Ms. R~ when he filed for disability benefits in 1985, but listed two other prior marriages that ended during the period NH would have been married to Ms. R~. Claimant believed that NH had divorced Ms. R~ before they were married. You have informed us that Louisiana would find that a putative marriage existed between Claimant and NH.

DISCUSSION

Under the Social Security Act (Act), the widow of a fully-insured individual is entitled to benefits upon attaining age sixty. See section 202(e)(1)(B)(i) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1)(B)(i); 20 C.F.R. Sec. 404.335 (2007). Because Claimant is apparently the mother of two of NH's children, she would be his "widow" if she establishes that she is his "surviving wife." Section 216(c)(1) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(1); 20 C.F.R. Sec. 404.335 (a)(3).

There are two ways Claimant may qualify as NH's widow, and thus qualify eligible for survivor benefits under the Act. An applicant may qualify as the legal widow of an insured individual if "the courts of the State in which he was domiciled at the time of death, . . . would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly married at the time . . . he died." Section 216(h)(1)(A)(i) of the Act; ; 20 C.F.R. Sec. 404.345. An applicant who is not the "legal widow" of the insured individual still may be eligible for benefits as a "deemed widow" if

such applicant in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with such individual resulting in a purported marriage between them which, but for the legal impediment not known to the applicant at the time of such ceremony would have been a valid marriage, and such applicant and the insured individual were living in the same household at the time of [his] death . . .

Section 216(h)(1)(B)(i) of the Act; 20 C.F.R. Sec. 404.346(b).

You have advised us that Louisiana would find that a putative marriage existed between Claimant and NH. Accordingly, if Mississippi recognizes a putative marriage in another state as a valid marriage in Mississippi, Claimant would be eligible for benefits on NH's record as his legal widow. As a matter of comity, Mississippi does recognize valid marriages contracted in other states. See Walker v. Matthews, 3 So.2d 820 (1941) (common law marriage contracted in Alabama recognized in Mississippi even though such marriages were not recognized if contracted in Mississippi); accord George v. George, 389 So.2d 1389 (1980); see also Miller v. Lucks, 36 So.2d 140 (1948) (interracial marriage valid where contracted - in Illinois - given effect in Mississippi); Turner v. Turner, 612 So.2d 1141 (1993) (marriage valid in South Carolina recognized as valid marriage in Mississippi). Under Mississippi law, the court will resolve every reasonable presumption in favor of the validity of a marriage. Walker, 3 So.2d at 824. The fact of a subsequent marriage raises a presumption that a former marriage has been terminated by divorce or death. Id. at 825. However, a Louisiana putative marriage does not appear to be a "valid" marriage. LA. CIV. CODE ANN. Art. 96 (2007). Such a marriage is considered null but produces "civil effects in favor of a party who contracted it in good faith…" Id. Neither Louisiana case law nor statutes describe the favorable civil effects a putative marriage produces. Although Mississippi law and public policy favor recognition of valid marriages, Mississippi has not considered the effect of a putative marriage contracted in another state. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that Mississippi would recognize the putative marriage between Claimant and NH.

CONCLUSION

Claimant would not be entitled to widow's benefits on NH's record if she had to rely on recognition of her putative Louisiana marriage in Mississippi. She might, however, be entitled to benefits if her marriage was deemed valid when she received mother's benefits, assuming she meets the other requirements of 20 C.F.R. Sec. 404.335.

Very truly yours,
Mary A. S~
Regional Chief Counsel
By____________________________ Laurie G. R~
Assistant Regional Counsel

B. PR 05-029 Divorced Wife's Benefits, Number Holder Robert E. W~

DATE: October 21, 2004

1. SYLLABUS

Claimant in good faith, relied upon the divorce decree in marrying her second husband, and is therefore, estopped from challenging the decree irrespective of the nature of any legal flaw. The fact that claimant's second husband's divorce was not finalized does not change her status as his putative wife. Claimant could satisfy the "is not married" requirement for divorced wife's benefits if she seeks to divorce or annul her second marriage.

2. OPINION

QUESTION

You asked for our opinion on whether Linda S.'s (hereinafter Claimant's) second marriage to Robert S. (hereinafter second husband) was valid for purposes of determining Claimant's eligibility for divorced wife's benefits based on her first husband's (number holder) work record.

ANSWER

For the reasons set forth below, we believe that Claimant is not entitled to benefits based on the number holder's account due to the existence of her marriage to her second husband.

SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE

On May 18, 2004, Claimant filed an application for divorced wife's benefits on the work record of her first husband. Claimant and her first husband were married in April 1960 and divorced in March 1976.

In 1976, Claimant began living with her soon-to-be second husband in California. Claimant's second husband had been married to another woman since May 1973, but had separated from her in March 1976. On November 9, 1978, the Superior Court of California in San Bernadino County entered an Interlocutory Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage between Claimant's second husband and his first wife.

On February 17, 1979, Claimant married her second husband in Arizona. Claimant and her second husband never lived in Arizona, but continued to live together in California until April 1980, when they moved to Texas. The materials you provided us contain a letter dated April 5, 1983, from the second husband's divorce attorney addressed to Claimant in Texas. The letter indicates that Claimant had contacted the attorney regarding her second husband's prior marriage and divorce. The attorney stated in the letter that no final judgment of divorce had been entered. The attorney also recommended that Claimant obtain a nunc pro tunc order to validate her marriage to her second husband (such an order would grant a final judgment of divorce retroactive to November 9, 1978, the date of the Interlocutory Judgment). Apparently, no action was taken to obtain a nunc pro tunc order. Sometime in 1993, Claimant and her second husband moved from Texas to Missouri, and have lived there ever since, apparently as a married couple.

In her May 18, 2004, application for divorced wife's benefits, Claimant stated that she was "NOT MARRIED NOW" and had "only recently learned" that her second husband had not obtained a final judgment of divorce from his first wife. A June 17, 2004, Report of Contact indicates that Claimant told the Agency that while she was going through documents in connection with an application for retirement benefits based on her own work record, she found the divorce attorney's 1983 letter.

ANALYSIS

A woman is entitled to Social Security benefits as the divorced wife of an individual who is entitled to old-age or disability insurance benefits if she meets several requirements, including the requirement that she not be married when she applies for benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(b)(1) (2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.331 (2004). Because Claimant's first husband was domiciled in Mississippi at the time she applied for benefits, the Agency applies Mississippi law to determine Claimant's marital status. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Mississippi courts would apply Arizona law to determine the validity of Claimant's second marriage because she and her second husband were married in Arizona. See Miller v. Lucks, 36 So.2d 140, 141 (Miss. 1948); 52 Am. Jur. 2d Marriage § 63 (validity of marriage is governed by law where parties were married) (2004); see also POMS GN 00305.005. Because Claimant's second husband obtained his Interlocutory Judgment of divorce in California, Mississippi courts would apply California law to determine the validity of the divorce decree. See Johnson v. Pogue, 716 So.2d 1123, 1133 (Miss. App. 1998); see also Depper v. Depper, 451 P.2d 325, 327-28 (Az. 1969) (valid foreign decree entered in divorce action entitled to full faith and credit).

Claimant has not demonstrated that she is not married for purposes of entitlement to divorced wife's benefits. Claimant and her second husband were married in 1979. There is no evidence in the file to suggest that their marriage ended, for instance by divorce or annulment. Although Claimant states on her application for benefits that she is "not married now" to her second husband because he never obtained a final judgment of divorce from his first wife, Claimant has not provided any direct evidence or authority for this contention. It is her burden to prove she is not married. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.723, 404.728 (claimant is responsible for providing evidence of marriage and divorce). Presumably, Claimant is contending that her second marriage is bigamous. See ARIZ. CONST. art. 20, 2 (prohibiting polygamous marriages); ARIZ. REV. STAT. §§ 13-271, 13-273 (1977) (now codified at §§ 13-3606, 13-3607 (West 2004), renumbered by Laws 1977, Ch. 142, § 99, eff. Oct. 1, 1978 (criminalizing polygamy)); CAL. CIV. CODE §§ 4401, 4425 (1977) (now codified at CAL. FAM. CODE §§ 2201, 2210 (West 2004)). However, Claimant apparently entered into her second marriage based on a good faith belief that her second husband's divorce was final, and has been married to him for the past twenty-five years. Thus, the fact that her second husband's divorce was not finalized does not change her status as his putative wife. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.346 (an individual can obtain the status as a putative spouse if that person entered into the marriage with a good faith belief that the marriage was valid despite a legal impediment, i.e., a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony); POMS GN 00305.055. Here, Claimant can readily clarify her marital status. For instance, Claimant could seek to divorce or annul her marriage to her second husband. If she elected this option, Claimant would satisfy the "is-not-married" requirement for divorced wife's benefits. Until Claimant takes such action, however, there is no basis for the Agency to conclude that she is not married to her second husband.

We also note that even if Claimant had shown that her marriage to her second husband were somehow legally or technically void, she nevertheless likely would be estopped from attacking the validity of the marriage because her conduct since the second marriage indicated a good faith belief in, and reliance on, its validity.

Estoppel is an equitable doctrine. In many instances, in order to effect equity and justice, the law disregards the difference between a valid and invalid/void marriage or divorce. For instance, in California (where Claimant and her second husband lived immediately following their marriage), an individual who has remarried in reliance upon an interlocutory decree may not attack the finality of the decree. See Spellens v. Spellens, 317 P.2d 613 (Cal. 1957) ("The theory is that the marriage is not made valid by reason of the estoppel but that the estopped person may not take a position that the divorce or latter marriage was invalid"); Dietrich v. Dietrich, 261 P.2d 269 (Cal. 1953) (finding second husband estopped from asserting the invalidity of his wife's divorce from her former husband where second husband, in reliance on the divorce, went through a marriage ceremony and lived with wife as her husband for many years); Rediker v. Rediker, 221 P.2d 1 (Cal. 1950); In re Marriage of Recknor, 187 Cal.App.3d 539 (1983). Sitting in equity, the California courts have emphasized the conduct of the party to be estopped (i.e., the party's reliance on a divorce decree), rather than the particular legal defect of the decree. In equity, it is the understanding and actions of the concerned parties which are of paramount importance, not legal form.

It follows that, on the facts you have provided, Claimant would be estopped from attacking her second husband's divorce. The length of time Claimant and her second husband have lived together (apparently twenty-five years) as husband and wife, and Claimant's own statement that she had "only recently learned" that her second husband had not obtained a final judgment of divorce from his first wife, strongly suggests that she had believed herself to be the legal wife of her second husband. Moreover, nothing in the file demonstrates that either Claimant or her second husband sought legal recourse to dissolve their now disputed marriage. Since Claimant actually, and apparently in good faith, relied upon the decree in marrying her second husband, she would be estopped from challenging the decree irrespective of the nature of any legal flaw. In equity, "an interlocutory decree of divorce at least gives color as a judicial determination of divorce." See Spellens, 317 P.2d at 620. Public policy requires the recognition of Claimant's marriage to her second husband, rather than Claimant's "dubious attempt to resurrect" her second husband's original marriage to his first wife. See Spellens, 317 P.2d at 618.

CONCLUSION

Because Claimant is considered married to her second husband, and is estopped from denying the validity of his prior divorce and, thus, her subsequent marriage to him, Claimant is not entitled to divorced wife's benefits based on her first husband's work record.


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PR 05705.027 - Mississippi - 11/27/2007
Batch run: 01/27/2009
Rev:11/27/2007