I. Question Presented
S~ (claimant) applied for widow’s benefits on the record of M~, the deceased number-holder
(NH). The couple was married in Massachusetts in November 2004, and the NH died in
December 2004; therefore, they do not meet the statutory requirement that a marriage
must last at least nine months before a claimant can qualify for widow’s benefits.
Same-sex marriage was not legalized in Massachusetts until May 2004, only seven months
prior to the NH’s death. However, the claimant alleges that she and the NH entered
into a common-law marriage prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage. In the
alternative, she argues that the agency should treat their relationship as an NMLR.
The question presented is whether the agency should recognize the relationship as
either a common law marriage or an NMLR, so that the marriage could meet the statutory
durational requirement for purposes of entitlement to widow’s benefits under title
II of the Social Security Act (the Act).
II. Short Answer
No. Massachusetts has never recognized common-law marriage, nor did it ever permit
NMLRs, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships. Therefore, the agency cannot
recognize any prior legal relationship that allegedly was established in Massachusetts,
and the marriage cannot meet the nine-month durational requirement.
The NH, M~, and the claimant, S~, were married in Massachusetts on November XX, 2004.
The NH died on December XX, 2004. She was domiciled in Massachusetts at the time.
In October 2016, the claimant applied for widow’s insurance benefits on the NH’s account.
She alleged in her application that she and the NH were in a common-law marriage prior
to the November 2004 marriage ceremony. She explained that she and the NH began their
relationship in 1998, and began living together in 2001. At the time, the claimant
was still married to, but separated from, K~; their divorce became final on February
In support of her application, the claimant provided the following evidence:
The claimant’s Statement of Marital Relationship (SSA-754);
Statements Regarding Marriage (SSA-753) provided by family members: B~ (the claimant’s
sister), K2~ (the claimant’s niece), M2~ (the NH’s sister);
The claimant’s and K~’s divorce decree;
Several Designation of Beneficiary forms (FERS, FEGLI, and TSP), completed by the
claimant on July XX, 2002, naming the NH as her beneficiary;
The NH’s will, leaving all her property to the claimant; and
A supplemental statement from the claimant, arguing that her relationship should be
considered an NMLR under POMS GN 00210.004. In support, she cited the evidence summarized above, and also described other actions
she and the NH had taken to formalize their relationship in 2003, prior to their marriage
(e.g., both prepared health care proxies giving each other authority to make medical decisions
on behalf of the other; both prepared durable powers of attorney giving each other
unlimited authority over the assets of the other; and the claimant named the NH as
the primary beneficiary on her IRAs).
IV. Applicable Law
To be entitled to widow’s insurance benefits under the Act, a claimant must show,
among other things, that she is the widow of the insured. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1). As pertinent here, the Act defines “widow” as “the surviving
wife of an individual…” 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(1). Under the Act:
An applicant is the . . . wife . . . of a fully or currently insured individual for
purposes of this title if the courts of the State in which such insured individual
is domiciled at the time such applicant files an application, or, if such insured
individual is dead, the courts of the State in which [s]he was domiciled at the time
of death . . . would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly
married at the time such applicant files such application or, if such insured individual
is dead, at the time [s]he died . . . .
42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. The relationship requirement will also be met if under State
law the claimant would be able to inherit a wife’s share of the insured’s personal
property if she were to die without leaving a will. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(ii);
20 C.F.R. § 404.345.
Additionally, to be considered a “widow,” a claimant must show that “she … was married
to [her spouse] for a period of not less than nine months immediately prior to the
day on which [her spouse] died…” 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(1)(E).
Here, the NH resided in Massachusetts at the time of her death. Therefore, the relevant
inquiry is whether, and for how long, Massachusetts courts would consider the claimant
and the NH to have been validly married.
Same-sex marriages have been valid in Massachusetts since May 17, 2004, as a result
of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Goodridge v. Dep’t of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309 (2003). Prior to Goodridge, Massachusetts did not provide for civil unions, domestic partnerships, or other
formal legal recognition of same-sex couples. There is no Massachusetts case law addressing
common-law same-sex marriage, presumably because Massachusetts has never recognized
common-law marriage for opposite-sex couples. Sutton v. Valois, 66 Mass. App. Ct. 258, 262 (2006); Collins v. Guggenheim, 417 Mass. 615, 617 (1994).
The only disputed issue is whether the couple’s marriage can meet the nine-month durational
requirement set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(1)(E), in order for the claimant to qualify
for widow’s benefits. There is no dispute that the claimant and the NH were validly
married at the time of the NH’s death on December XX, 2004, see 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i), given their November XX, 2004, Massachusetts marriage.
But because this marriage lasted less than two months, they can only meet the durational
requirement if the agency can recognize a pre-existing legal relationship.
In the alternative, the claimant alleges that she and the NH had a common law marriage.
While the claimant began living with the NH in 2001, SSA could only consider the alleged
common-law marriage (or other legal relationship) to have begun after February XX,
2003, when the claimant’s divorce from her prior husband was finalized. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 4 (providing, with limited exceptions not present here,
that a marriage is void if one spouse still has another spouse living and has not
divorced). We do not question that the claimant and the NH were in a committed, exclusive
relationship since at least 2003. However, under title II of the Act, the agency could
only consider the parties’ relationship to be a common-law marriage if Massachusetts
would do so, see POMS GN 00305.065(A) (the agency makes common-law marriage determinations in accordance with state
law), and as we noted above, Massachusetts has never recognized common-law marriages
– for either same- or opposite-sex couples, see Collins, 417 Mass. at 617. Therefore, the agency cannot recognize the parties’ relationship
as a common-law marriage in this case.
The claimant also asserts that her relationship to the NH should be considered an
NMLR under POMS GN 00210.004. See “To Whom It May Concern” Statement dated October XX, 2016. In particular, she notes
that the POMS includes designated beneficiaries and reciprocal beneficiaries in its
list of examples of such relationships. She points to evidence that she designated
the NH as her beneficiary on various Federal forms, and that she and the NH each named
the other as beneficiaries in their wills to justify her assertion on this point.
Id. However, these designations do not satisfy the POMS requirements for recognition
of an NMLR. An NMLR can only be recognized for benefit purposes if the relationship:
(1) was valid in the State where it was established, and (2) qualifies as a marital
relationship using the laws of the State of the NH’s domicile or would allow the claimant
to inherit a spouse’s share of the NH’s personal property should the NH have died
without leaving a will. POMS GN 00210.004(C). The POMS lists designated beneficiaries and reciprocal beneficiaries as types
of relationships that might be permitted by some States and might be recognized by
the agency. See POMS GN 00210.004(D)(2). As the claimant acknowledged in her October XX, 2016 Statement, Massachusetts
never permitted civil unions, domestic partnerships, designated beneficiary status,
or any other kind of NMLRs before legalizing same-sex marriage. Because Massachusetts
law does not recognize an NMLR, the agency also cannot recognize an NMLR in this case.
The claimant cannot be considered the NH’s widow for purposes of entitlement to title
II benefits because the couple was legally married for less than nine months, no exception
to the statutory duration requirement applies, and Massachusetts would not recognize
their prior relationship as a common-law marriage or an NMLR. Therefore, the agency
cannot recognize a marriage of sufficient duration to establish entitlement for benefits
in this case.
Michael J. Pelgro
Regional Chief Counsel
By: Natasha Oeltjen
Assistant Regional Counsel