You have requested our opinion concerning the validity of a Mexican divorce between
the claimant and her first husband. You have also questioned what effect, if any,
the validity of this divorce would have on the claimant's current entitlement on the
record of her second husband, following his death.
In this case, the claimant married her first husband, Malcolm S~, on June 20, 1953
in Bar Harbor, Maine. Subsequently, the claimant and Mr. S~ moved to Lexington, Massachusetts,
where they were living in 1967, when they decided to obtain a divorce. A settlement
was agreed upon, which apparently gave custody of the couple's children, as well as
child support, to the claimant.
Afterwards, Mr. S~ went to Mexico to obtain the divorce decree. The claimant was not
present in Mexico during the proceeding, nor does it appear that she was represented
by anyone at that time. The divorce decree was issued by the civil court of the state
of Chihuahua, Mexico on November 29, 1967. It stated that the parties were free to
remarry. The claimant subsequently married Allen C~ on April 15, 1978, in Lexington,
Massachusetts. Mr. C~ died on June 9, 1996, which terminated the marriage. The claimant
is currently receiving benefits as the surviving widow of Mr. C~. She has now applied
for benefits on the account of Mr. S~.
The claimant may receive benefits on the account of Mr. S~ as his wife if, at the
time the claimant filed her application, the courts of the state in which the Mr.
S~ was domiciled would find that they were validly married. See Section 216 (h)(1)(A)(i) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 416 (h)(1)(A)(i). At
the time that the claimant filed her application, Mr. S~ was domiciled in Maine. Therefore,
the determination of whether the claimant remained married to Mr. S~ must be made
under the law which would be applied by the courts of Maine.
Whether or not the claimant is still married to Mr. S~ depends upon whether their
Mexican divorce was valid. Since both the claimant and Mr. S~ were domiciliaries of
Massachusetts at the time of the divorce, we must first determine whether the courts
of Maine would apply their own law or the law of Massachusetts in determining the
validity of the divorce. While there is no statutory or judicial precedent in Maine
directly discussing this point, we have held in opinions re Arthur R. S~, Jr., July
6, 1970, and Beverly F~, January 5, 1983, that Maine would look to its own law to
determine the validity of a Mexican divorce, even if the parties were domiciled elsewhere
at the time of the divorce.
Maine will only recognize an out-of-state divorce that is decreed according to the
law of the place, by a court having jurisdiction of the cause and of both parties.
See 19 M.R.S.A. § 663. In regards to the Mexican divorce between the claimant and Mr.
S~, it is clear that the Mexican court did not properly have jurisdiction over either
party. Mr. S~ apparently went to Mexico for the limited purpose of obtaining the divorce,
and does not appear to have ever been domiciled in Mexico. Additionally, the claimant
never went to Mexico, nor made an appearance through any sort of representatives.
Therefore, the Mexican court which issued the divorce decree did not have jurisdiction
over the parties as required by the Maine statute, and as such, the state of Maine
would find that their divorce was not valid.
Although we believe that the Mexican divorce between the claimant and Mr. S~ is invalid,
we also believe that the principal of estoppel is applicable to the current facts.
In this case, it appears that the claimant would be estopped from asserting the invalidity
of the divorce. A party who participated in a foreign divorce may be prevented from
denying its validity; however, an invalid divorce is not made valid by reason of estoppel.
Rather, estoppel merely prevents the estopped person from taking a position that the
divorce was invalid.
By accepting property as part of a settlement from her first husband, and in marrying
a second time, the claimant clearly acted in reliance on the divorce decree. While
the plaintiff has alleged that she did "not want the divorce", this allegation obviously
did not prevent the parties from securing the decree, and even more importantly, did
not stop the plaintiff from taking the above noted actions. Therefore we believe that
the claimant would be estopped from attacking the validity of her divorce from Mr.
S~. As such, for the purposes of benefits under the Social Security Act, the claimant
would be considered the divorced spouse of Mr. S~, and would be entitled to divorced
wife's benefits on his account, assuming that all other conditions of eligibility
Additionally, because the facts show that the claimant acted in reliance on her divorce,
particularly in marrying her second husband, Mr. C~, she may be entitled to benefits
on Mr. C~'s account as a de facto or deemed widow. Social Security Regulations at
20 C.F.R. 404.346 state that a person "will be deemed to be the wife, husband, widow
or widower of the insured if, in good faith [they] went through a marriage ceremony
with the insured that would have resulted in a valid marriage except for a legal impediment."
The facts in this case indicate that the claimant went through a marriage ceremony
with Mr. C~. Additionally, it appears that the marriage would have been valid but
for a legal impediment (the fact that the claimant remained married to Mr. S~ as a
result of an invalid Mexican divorce). See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 63-48; POMS GN 00305.055. Accordingly, the evidence in this case indicates that the ceremony between the claimant
and Mr. C~ was one that would have resulted in a valid legal marriage except for a
Determining whether the claimant went through the ceremony in good faith requires
a close examination of the facts. In this case, the facts appear to show that the
claimant both accepted and acted in reliance upon her divorce from Mr. S~; the plaintiff
accepted custody of the children, as well as child support from him. Thus if, based
on your investigation of the facts, you find that the claimant went through with the
marriage ceremony in good faith, then she may be considered a deemed widow on the
account of Mr. C~.
In summary, it is our opinion that the Mexican divorce between the claimant and Mr.
S~ would not be considered valid, however, the claimant would be estopped from attacking
the validity of this divorce. Therefore, under the Social Security Act she would be
entitled to benefits as a divorced spouse on Mr. S~'s account. Additionally, the claimant
may be found to be a deemed widow on Mr. C~'s account, provided that you find that
she would through the marriage ceremony with Mr. C~ in good faith.