You asked whether claimant R~ (Claimant) is entitled to payment of surviving spouse
benefits under the record of the decreased number holder, T~ (NH), where the couple
entered into a civil union in Vermont and were domiciled in California when the NH
Yes. Claimant and NH entered into a valid civil union in Vermont, which California
will recognize as equivalent to a California domestic partnership. Under California
law, this civil union conferred rights permitting Claimant to inherit intestate from
NH to the same extent as a surviving spouse. Accordingly, the agency deems Claimant
to be NH’s surviving spouse for purposes of entitlement to surviving spouse benefits.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
On October XX, 2000, Claimant and NH entered into a same-sex civil union in the State
of Vermont, as evidenced by their Vermont License and Certificate of Civil Union.
The Claimant and NH neither registered their civil union nor filed for a domestic
partnership with the State of California. Based on information provided by the Palms
Springs Office, the NH and Claimant resided in Cathedral City, California, where the
NH died on June XX, 2010. Thereafter, on June XX, 2016, Claimant filed for surviving
spouse’s benefits on the NH’s record.
To be entitled to survivor’s benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act),
a claimant must establish that she or he is the widow or widower of an individual
who died fully insured. See Social Security Act §§ 202(e), (f), 216(c)(1), (g)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335. Under
Section 216(h) of the Act, the agency will find a claimant to be the widow or widower
of an insured individual if the courts of the State in which the insured individual
resided at the time of his or her death would find that the claimant was validly married
to the insured individual when the death occurred. Social Security Act § 216(h)(1)(A)(i).
However, even if the claimant was not married to the insured individual, the agency
will deem the claimant to be the insured individual’s widow or widower if, under the
laws of the State where the insured individual had a permanent home, the claimant
would be able to inherit a surviving spouse’s share of the insured individual’s personal
property if she or he died without leaving a will. Social Security Act § 216(h)(1)(A)(ii);
20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Under such circumstances, the agency will treat the couple’s
relationship as a marital relationship. Id.
In addition to establishing that she or he is the insured’s widow or widower under
the laws described above, to recover surviving spouse benefits, the claimant must
show that she or he meets one of the following conditions:
(1) his or her relationship to the insured as wife or husband lasted for at least
9 months immediately before the insured died;
(2) his or her relationship to the insured as wife or husband did not last for at
least 9 months but another qualifying condition is satisfied;
(3) he or she and the insured had a child together; or
(4) the month before marrying the insured, he or she was entitled to or could have
been entitled to certain benefits or payments; or
20 C.F.R. § 404.335; see also Social Security Act, § 202(e), (f).
In 1999, the California Legislature enacted Assembly Bill 26, which allowed same-sex
couples to enter into domestic partnerships effective October 10, 1999. The California
Legislature later passed other legislation that expanded rights and responsibilities
for registered same-sex domestic partners. To enter into a same-sex domestic partnership,
individuals must file a Declaration of Domestic Partnership with the Secretary of
State and meet the following requirements:
(1) not be married to someone else or a member of another domestic partnership that
has not been terminated;
(2) not be related by blood;
(3) be at least 18 years old; and
(4) be capable of consenting to a domestic partnership.
Cal. Fam. Code § 297.
California Family Code section 297.5 provides that registered domestic partners have
the same rights, protections, benefits, responsibilities, obligations, and duties
“as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.” Cal. Fam. Code § 297.5(a). Moreover,
each domestic partner has a right to inherit intestate from the other domestic partner
to the same extent as a widow or widower. Cal. Fam. Code § 297.5(c); see also Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00210.004.D (noting California state-registered domestic partnerships convey spousal inheritance
rights such that the agency will treat the domestic partners as if they were married
for the purpose of determining benefit eligibility). Furthermore, California construes
“gender-specific terms referring to spouses . . . to include domestic partners.” Cal.
Fam. Code § 297.5(j).
Regardless of whether a legal union bears the name domestic partnership, California
law recognizes non-marital same-sex legal unions formed in other jurisdictions as
domestic partnerships in California as long as the union (1) was validly formed in
another jurisdiction and (2) is substantially equivalent to a domestic partnership
in California. Cal. Fam. Code § 299.2.
Beginning on July 1, 2000, Vermont established civil unions to provide same-sex couples
all the benefits, protections, and responsibilities under the law as are granted to
spouses in a marriage. Thereafter, on September 1, 2009, the General Assembly of the
State of Vermont enacted “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom and Recognize Equality
in Civil Marriage” (Marriage Equality Act). Id. The Marriage Equality Act redefined marriage as “the legally recognized union of
two people.” Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 8. As such, the Marriage Equality Act eliminated
the need for the separate status of civil unions in Vermont. Consequently, as of September
1, 2009, civil unions are no longer available in Vermont; however, civil unions entered
into prior to September 1, 2009, are valid in Vermont.
Prior to September 1, 2009, to enter into a civil union in Vermont, individuals had
to file a “Certificate of Civil Union” and meet the following requirements:
(1) not be a party to another civil union or marriage;
(2) be of the same sex;
(3) be unrelated by blood in a manner closer than that of a first cousin;
(4) be at least 18 years old; and
(5) be of sound mind.
Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, §§ 1201(1) (repealed in part by Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, §
8 (effective 2009)), 1202; 1203; Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 18 § 5163 (repealed in 2009).
Parties to a civil union “have all the same benefits, protections, and responsibilities
under law” as bestowed upon spouses in a civil marriage, including laws related to
the intestate distribution of property. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, §§ 1204(a), 1204(c)
and 1204(e)(1). Likewise, a partner in a civil union “is included in the definition
or use of the term ‘spouse’ . . . and other terms that denote the spousal relationship,
as those terms are used throughout the law.” Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 1204(b).
Because the Claimant is not alleging he was married to the NH, we consider whether
the agency will deem the Claimant to be the NH’s widower in light of the couple’s
civil union, such that the Claimant is entitled to surviving spouse benefits on the
A. The Civil Union Meets the Agency’s Duration Requirement
Claimant and NH entered into a Vermont civil union over nine years before the NH’s
death on June XX, 2010. The relationship therefore exceeded the nine-month duration
requirement for surviving spouse benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(1); POMS GN 00210.004.E.
B. The Civil Union Was Validly Formed Under Vermont Law
Based on the copy of the Certificate of Civil Union the Claimant provided to the agency,
Claimant and NH entered into a civil union in Vermont on October XX, 2000, soon after
Vermont’s civil union law became effective. As required under Vermont law in effect
at that time, Claimant and NH each signed a civil union license, in which they attested
to their compliance with Vermont legal requirements for civil unions. When the Town
Clerk and Justice of the Peace certified the civil union license, it became a Certificate
of Civil Union under Vermont law. See Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 18 § 5160 et seq. (repealed). The Town Clerk filed the original
civil union certificate on October XX, 2000, in B~, Vermont. Therefore, the couple
entered into a valid civil union under Vermont Law. See Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 18 § 5160 et seq. (repealed) (setting forth the procedures in
Vermont to issue civil union licenses and civil union certificates prior to September
C. Because Claimant Could Inherit Intestate from NH Under California Law, the Agency
Will Deem Claimant the Widower of NH
Even though Claimant and NH were not married, the agency will deem Claimant to be
the NH’s widower if, under the laws of the State of California (i.e., where the NH
had a permanent home), Claimant would be able to inherit a surviving spouse’s share
of NH’s personal property if NH died without leaving a will. Accordingly, to determine
Claimant’s entitlement to surviving spouse benefits, the agency will look to California
law. See Social Security Act, § 216(h)(1)(A)(ii); 20; C.F.R. § 404.345.
Under California law, parties to a domestic partnership receive the same rights as
married couples, including the right to inherit to the same extent as a surviving
spouse. Cal. Fam. Code §§ 297.5(a) and 297.5(c); see also POMS GN 00210.004 (noting California domestic partnerships provide for spousal inheritance rights).
While NH and Claimant neither entered into a domestic partnership in California, nor
registered their Vermont civil union in California, the State of California will recognize
a legal union formed in another jurisdiction—and treat it the same as a California
domestic partnership—as long as the relationship (1) was validly formed in that other
jurisdiction and (2) is substantially equivalent to a domestic partnership in California.
See Cal. Fam. Code § 299.2.
As noted above, Claimant and NH entered into a valid Vermont civil union. Additionally,
a Vermont civil union is “substantially equivalent” to a California domestic partnership
because California and Vermont both require that same-sex partners to a legal union
(1) not be a partner in another union or a spouse in a marriage; (2) be at least eighteen
years old; (3) not be related by blood in such a manner as to preclude them from being
married; and (4) be capable of consent. Cal. Fam. Code §§ 297, 299.2; Vt. Stat. Ann.
tit. 15, §§ 1201(1), 1202, 1203 (repealed in part by Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 8);
Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 18 § 5163 (repealed in 2009). Therefore, the civil union between
NH and Claimant would be recognized under California law such that the Claimant could
inherit to the same extent as a surviving spouse if the NH died without a will.
California will recognize a civil union established in Vermont as long as the union:
(1) was validly formed in another jurisdiction, and
(2) is substantially equivalent to a domestic partnership in California.
Cal. Fam. Code § 299.2. Here, the civil union between NH and Claimant satisfied these
requirements. Therefore, under California law, Claimant would be entitled to inherit
to the same extent as a surviving spouse if NH died intestate. Accordingly, the agency
deems Claimant to be the NH’s widower entitling Claimant to surviving spouse benefits
on the NH’s record.