You have requested our opinion whether a Mexican divorce obtained by the claimant
from the wage earner would be considered valid by the courts of Rhode Island.
According to the file, the claimant, Mabel S~, married the wage earner, John M~, in
1958 in New York. On December 24, 1965, the claimant obtained a Mexican divorce from
the wage earner. The claimant appeared personally at the divorce proceedings and met
Mexico's residency requirement. The wage earner was represented by an attorney at
the proceedings and submitted to the Jurisdiction of the Mexican court.
Both the claimant and the wage earner were domiciled in New York at the time of the
divorce. They both remained domiciled in New York after the divorce and lived together
there until 1969, although the claimant used her maiden name following the divorce.
The parties were separated from 1969 through 1978 and thereafter resumed living together
in Rhode Island in 1979. The wage earner died on December 31, 1980, while domiciled
in Rhode Island. Neither the claimant nor the wage earner had remarried at any time
after the Mexican divorce. On April 7, 1983, Mabel S~ filed an application for widow's
benefits on the deceased wage earner's account.
Section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Social Security Act provides that an applicant is the
widow of a wage earner if the courts of the state in which the wage earner was domiciled
at death would find that the claimant and the wage earner were validly married at
the time of his death. Accordingly, the claimant's status must be determined under
Rhode Island law. Whether the claimant was married to the wage earner at the time
he died in turn depends upon whether the claimant's Mexican divorce from the wage
earner is valid. In deciding this question we must first decide whether the courts
of Rhode Island, in addressing the issue of the validity of the divorce, would apply
Rhode Island law or the law of New York, where the parties were domiciled at the time
of the divorce. New York law upholds the validity of a bilateral divorce decree rendered
by a foreign country in cases where, as here, one spouse appears personally and the
other spouse submits to the Jurisdiction of the foreign court by appearing through
an attorney, and the residency requirements of the foreign country are met. Rosenstiel-v. Rosenstiel, 16 N.Y.2d 64, 262 N.Y.Supp. 2d 86, 209 N.E.2d 709.(1965),. cert. denied, 383 U.S.
943 (1966). Rhode Island, however, will not recognize a foreign divorce decree where
neither spouse had an actual domicile within the foreign country. See, e.g., our opinion re. Peter Y~, March 12, 1979.
We have been unable to locate any Rhode Island case law discussing what law the courts
of Rhode Island would apply in the circumstances of this case. It is clear that Rhode
Island would apply its own law in cases in which one or both of the parties to a foreign
divorce are domiciled in Rhode Island at the time of the divorce. Opinion re. Peter
Y~ , supra. We believe Rhode Island would also apply its own law in cases where the
parties to a foreign divorce are each domiciled in different states at the time of
the divorce and those states would reach contrary conclusions as to the validity of
the divorce. In the present case, however, the claimant and wage earner were married
in New York and were both domiciled in New York at the time of the divorce. In addition,
they continued to live in New York for at least several years subsequent to the divorce.
At the time of the divorce only the State of New York had an interest in their marriage
status, and New York would give recognition to their bilateral Mexican divorce. Rosenstiel
v. Rosenstiel, supra. We believe that under such circumstances the courts of Rhode
Island would apply New York law to determine the validity of the divorce. A conclusion
that the courts of Rhode Island would recognize the status the parties acquired while
domiciled in New York is consistent with the interest of stability in Judicial determinations.
We therefore conclude, in the absence of Rhode Island law to the contrary, that the
courts of Rhode Island would apply New York law and find that the claimant's Mexican
divorce from the wage earner was valid. 27B C.J.S. Divorce, §326; cf. Rosen v. Sitnet, 418 A.2d 490 (Pa. Super. 1980).
Having determined that the courts of Rhode Island would recognize the claimant's Mexican
divorce in this case, it would ordinarily be concluded that the claimant is not entitled
to widow's benefits on the wage earner's account. However, the claimant and wage earner
lived together in Rhode Island from 1979 until the wage earner's death on December
31, 1980. The claimant alleges that she and the wage earner considered themselves
to be husband and wife during that time. Rhode Island does recognize common-law marriages
as valid. Souza v. O'Hara, 121R.I. 88, 395 A.2d 1060 (1978). Proof of a common-law marriage requires clear
and convincing evidence that the parties considered themselves to be married and that
their conduct gave rise to a general reputation among friends and relatives that they
were married. Sardonis v. Sardonis, 106 R.I. 469, 261A.2d 22 (1970). As the fact finder, you must determine whether
there is clear and convincing evidence that a valid common-law marriage had arisen.
1_/ If you should find upon your review of the evidence that the claimant was the
common-law wife of the wage earner at the time of his death, the claimant would qualify
for widow's benefits on the wage earner's account, assuming she meets all other conditions
1_/ We note that the file contains conflicting evidence concerning the existence of
a common-law marriage. The claimant alleged the existence of a common-law marriage
in her application for widow's benefits, and several relatives have stated that they
always considered the claimant and the wage earner to be husband and wife. In an earlier
application for the lump-sum death payment, however, the claimant stated that she
did not have a common-law marriage.