S~ (the claimant) and P~ (the number holder (NH)) registered as same-sex domestic
partners in California, and the NH later passed away while the couple was domiciled
in Oregon. Is the claimant entitled to widow’s benefits on the NH’s record under Title
II of the Social Security Act (the Act)?
Yes, the agency would consider the claimant as the NH’s spouse based upon the California
domestic partnership. Here, where the domestic partnership laws of Oregon and California
are substantially similar, and both provide for spousal inheritance rights, Oregon
policy would not prevent recognition of this validly formed California domestic partnership.
Thus, because the claimant can inherit as the NH’s spouse under Oregon law, the agency
should consider the claimant and the NH as married for benefits purposes when the
NH passed away while domiciled in Oregon.
SUMMARY OF FACTS
The NH and claimant registered as same-sex domestic partners in California on July
XX, 2003. There is no evidence that their domestic partnership was not validly formed.
The couple moved to Oregon sometime in 2004. They never married, nor did they register
their domestic partnership in Oregon. The NH died in Oregon on December XX, 2010.
On September XX, 2015, the claimant applied for widow’s benefits on the NH’s record.
I. Applicable Law
An individual must establish a marital relationship with the NH in order to be entitled
to widow’s or widower’s benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 402(e) & (f); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335. Where
there is a non-marital legal relationship rather than a marriage, the agency determines
whether the non-marital legal relationship qualifies as a marital relationship using
the intestacy laws of the state of the NH’s domicile when he or she died. 42 U.S.C.
§ 416(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. If, under state law, a claimant could inherit
a spouse’s share of the NH’s personal property if the NH died without leaving a will,
the agency treats the couple’s non-marital legal relationship as a marital relationship
for purposes of determining entitlement to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. In this
case, the NH was domiciled in Oregon at the time of death; therefore, Oregon state
At the time of the NH’s death, Oregon state law recognized same-sex domestic partnerships.
Or. Rev. Stat. § 106.340. Domestic partnerships were allowed except when (1) either
party had another partner or spouse living at the time of the domestic partnership;
(2) the parties were first cousins or any nearer kin to each other; or (3) either
party was incapable of consenting to the contract for want of age or understanding.
Or. Rev. Stat. § 106.315. Oregon law granted couples registered as domestic partners
the same survivor benefits as married couples. Or. Rev. Stat. § 106.340(1). Thus,
Oregon registered domestic partnerships qualified as marital relationships for SSA
benefits purposes. POMS GN 00210.004D.
There is no explicit provision in Oregon law either recognizing or rejecting out-of-state
registered domestic partnerships. However, as a general principle of Oregon law, “a
marriage which is recognized as valid in the state where it was performed will be
recognized in Oregon.” Garrett v. Chapman, 252 Or. 361, 364, 449 P. 2d 856 (1969). There is a potential exception to that rule
“where the policy of this state dictates a different result than would be reached
by the state where the marriage was performed.” Id. Thus, when considering the validity of marriages formed in other states, the question
is whether any Oregon policy would prevent recognition of the marriage.
Beginning January 2000 (and at all times relevant here), California permitted any
two same-sex individuals to enter a registered domestic partnership if (1) neither
person had an ongoing marriage or domestic partnership with someone else; (2) the
individuals were not related by blood; (3) both individuals were at least 18 years
of age; and (4) both individuals were capable of consenting to the domestic partnership.
Cal. Fam. Code § 297(b); see POMS GN 00210.004(D)(5).
As in Oregon, registered domestic partners in California had the same rights, protections,
benefits, responsibilities, obligations, and duties “as are granted to and imposed
upon spouses.” Cal. Fam. Code § 297.5(a). An individual in a registered domestic partnership
had a right to inherit intestate from the other partner the same as a surviving spouse.
Cal. Fam. Code § 297.5(c).
Because the claimant does not allege that there was a marriage, we need not address
the requirements for a valid marriage in Oregon. We address instead the claimant’s
registered domestic partnership.
Applying the Garrett analysis to these facts, the State of Oregon would recognize the claimant and the
NH’s out-of-state domestic partnership. The domestic partnership was registered in
California, which, like Oregon, prohibits domestic partnerships between partners who
are married to another, related by blood, under 18 years of age, or incompetent. Cal.
Fam. Code § 297(b); Or. Rev. Stat. § 106.315. California’s domestic partnership requirements
and benefits, which are comprehensive, are substantially similar to Oregon’s. Compare Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 106.315 & 106.340, and Cal Fam. Code § 297.5. Therefore, Oregon policy would not prevent recognition of this
validly formed California domestic partnership. Because Oregon would recognize this
domestic partnership for inheritance purposes, the agency may treat the couple’s relationship
as a marital relationship for purposes of determining entitlement to benefits.
Under Title II of the Act, the agency could deem the claimant and NH as married based
on their California registered domestic partnership because, under Oregon law, such
relationship allows for intestate inheritance rights as a spouse. Accordingly, the
claimant is entitled to survivor’s benefits on the NH’s record.