PR 06225.016 Illinois

A. PR 04-270 Annette T~ CAN: ~ Effect of Posthumous Court Order Vacating Divorce

DATE: December 18 , 1997

1. SYLLABUS

To determine whether a State court decision to vacate a divorce decree after the NH's death is binding on SSA, SSA should ask the claimant to provide evidence showing that a party with opposing interests genuinely contested vacating the divorce decree. She should also provide the facts that supported the trial court's decision, so that SSA can determine whether that decision would comport with the law that would be set forth by the Illinois Supreme Court. If she cannot provide this information, SSA is not bound by the court order, and may make its own determination about marital status.

2. OPINION

You asked whether the Social Security Administration is bound by an Illinois trial court order that vacated a divorce decree two years after the insured spouse had died. The claimant, Ms. T~, seeks widow's benefits. Based on the facts provided us, we believe the trial court's decision is not binding on the agency. We also believe that Ms. T~ should be given the opportunity to provide more information regarding the trial court's decision.

FACTS

Ilia T~ and Alice S~ (aka Annette) were married in Chicago in 1962. In 1964, the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois dissolved the marriage of Iliat and Alice T~. Ms. T~ said that the "T~" divorce decree applied to her marriage, but provided no explanation for the difference in the last names. In 1988 and in 1991, Ms. T~ applied for social security benefits and represented that she and Mr. T~ were divorced in Chicago on December 30 , 1964.

Mr. T~, who was domiciled in Illinois, died in 1992. After he died, Ms. T~ petitioned the state court to vacate their divorce decree. In 1994, the Circuit Court of Cook County vacated the decree, finding that Ms. T~ had never received notice and that Mr. T~ had committed fraud upon the court. One month after the divorce was vacated, Ms. T~ applied for widow's benefits contending she had always lived with her husband and had had no idea that he had filed for divorce. She said she found the divorce decree after he died in 1992.

Discussion

A Social Security applicant is the spouse of an insured, deceased individual, if the courts of the state in which the decedent was domiciled at the time of his death would find a valid marriage. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i). The agency is bound by a state court decision if

1) An issue in a claim for Social Security benefits previously has been determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction; 2) this issue was genuinely contested before the State court by parties with opposing interests; 3) the issue falls with the general category of domestic relations law; and 4) the resolution by the State trial court is consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State.

See SSR 83-37c; Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, 1373-74 (6th Cir. 1973; see also Haas v. Chater, 79 F.3d 559, 562 (7th Cir. 1996) (suggesting Seventh Circuit might follow Gray).

According to the facts provided here, the state court's decision is not binding on the agency for two reasons. First, Ms. T~ has not shown that her request to invalidate the divorce decree was genuinely contested. As stated above, the agency is not bound by a state court's decision about an issue unless parties with opposing interests genuinely disputed it. If the agency has not already done so, it should provide Ms. T~ the opportunity to produce evidence showing that another party appeared in court and opposed her request to vacate the divorce decree. See George v. Sullivan, 909 F.2d 857, 861 (6th Cir. 1990) (placing burden on claimant to prove case was contested).

Second, Ms. T~ has not provided the factual basis for the trial court's findings that she did not receive proper notice of the divorce proceeding and that her husband committed fraud upon the court. The agency needs the underlying facts to determine whether the trial court's decision is consistent with the law that would be enunciated by the Illinois Supreme Court. See SSR 83-37c; Gray, 474 F.2d at 1373-74. Again, if the agency has not already done so, it should ask Ms. T~ to provide more information about the trial court proceedings.

If Ms. T~ does not show that the trial court proceeding was genuinely contested and consistent with state law, the agency is not bound by the trial court's decision. The agency must then itself predict whether the Illinois Supreme Court would vacate the divorce decree on the basis of fraud, lack of notice, or any other defense Ms. T~ raises. See Parker v. Sullivan, 898 F.2d 578, 580 (7th Cir. 1990). The agency has the authority to determine marital status for purposes of entitlement to social security benefits. Id.

Based on the facts before us, we believe the state court's decision to vacate the divorce decree is not binding on the agency. If the agency has not already done so, however, it should ask Ms. T~ to provide evidence showing that a party with opposing interests genuinely contested vacating the divorce decree. She also should provide the facts that supported the trial court's decision, so the agency can determine whether that decision would comport with the law that would be set forth by the Illinois Supreme Court. If Ms. T~ cannot show that the vacation of the divorce decree was genuinely contested and was consistent with state law, the agency is not bound by the court order, and may make its own determination about marital status.

Thomas W. C~
Chief Counsel, Region V

By:________________________________
Pam R~
Assistant Regional Counsel

B. PR 85-016 Validity of Order Vacating Divorce After Death of Party John L. J~

DATE: August 5, 1985

1. SYLLABUS

DIVORCE -- EFFECT OF VACATION OF DECREE -- ILLINOIS

The Secretary need not and should not follow a State Court ruling vacating a divorce on the basis that deferred proceedings to deal with property and alimony never took place thus rendering the entire proceeding invalid, where such a ruling is not genuinely contested, the Court lacks jurisdiction and the ruling is not consistent with the law of the State as interpreted by the State's highest court. Procedurally, the failure to follow through on such deferred proceedings does not always render the entire proceeding invalid. In addition the doctrine of estoppel to challenge the validity of a divorce decree from which the claimant derived benefit and the presumptions of the validity of the last marriage precludes a finding that the original divorce decree was invalid. (J~, John L., ~ -- RAV (G~), to ARC, 08705785.)

2. OPINION

By memorandum dated March 25, 1985, you have asked whether claimant, Diana Gayle J~ is the legal widow of the deceased numberholder, who received disability benefits, notwithstanding a 1977 divorce decree. The decree was vacated in 1984, after the numberholder's death. In our opinion, claimant is not his widow, but his divorced ex-wife.

Background Facts

The pertinent facts are as follows. Claimant and the numberholder were married in 1967. In 1975, claimant filed for divorce. Both parties were represented by counsel. i/ Shortly thereafter, the numberholder was disabled by a gunshot wound and began receiving benefits.

In May and June, 1977, a decree of divorce was entered, and all other matters -- alimony, child support, property -- were deferred to a second hearing. In February 1978, claimant married one James S~ In March, 1984, claimant was advised by her legal counsel 2/ that the 1977 divorce was invalid because of the bifurcated divorce procedure: since the alimony and property hearing had never been held, the entire proceeding was reportedly dismissed. Claimant was advised to dissolve her apparently bigamous marriage to James S~, which she reports, but has not documented, she did.

The numberholder died in July, 1984. Claimant promptly asked the court to dismiss her divorce proceeding. 3/ The court refused, but entered an August, 1984 order vacating the 1977 divorce judgment. Subsequently, in November, 1984, the remaining entire proceeding was dismissed for lack of prosecution. After that, the numberholder's employer, from whom claimant apparently had claimed spousal death benefits, petitioned the court to reinstate the proceeding and rescind the vacating of the 1977 divorce. 4/ The employer argued that 1977 ruling could not be rescinded. Claimant and-the employer eventually settled, and the matter remains as it was in November, 1984.

Discussion

A. Effect of State Court Ruling

As a preliminary matter, we consider whether the Secretary must follow the state court ruling vacating the 1977 divorce. We conclude that she need not.

In Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973), adopted as SSR 83-37c, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that although the Secretary is not bound by a state trial court decision in a proceeding to which she was not a party, she is not free to ignore it in making Social Security determinations if four requirements are met: 1) an issue involved in a claim for social security benefits has been previously determined by a court of competent jurisdiction; 2) the issue was genuinely contested before the court by parties with opposing interests; 3) the issue falls within the category of domestic relations law; and 4) the state court ruling is consistent with the law as enunciated by the state's highest court. See Tony M~, RA V (W~/G~) to ARC-Programs (W~) SSA V prior opinions cited therein.

The 1984 ruling vacating the 1977 divorce fails to meet Gray on three counts. First, the matter was not genuinely contested. No one appeared on behalf of the numberholder's estate or heirs. Although the numberholder's employer appeared to oppose the vacating of the divorce, it did so only afterwards, and its arguments were never considered by the court as the parties settled. Moreover, the employer was seeking to protect its own interests, not those of the numberholder. 5/

In addition, the court lacked jurisdiction. Where one spouse dies before a bifurcated divorce proceeding is completed, the action is abated unless the remaining issues (e.g., alimony) had been previously decided but not reduced to judgment. In re Marriage of Davies, 95 Ill.2d 474, 448 N.E.2d 882, 885 (1983); In re Marriage of Walters, 129 Ill. App.3d 1040, 473 N.E.2d 580, 583 (1985). Claimant's proceeding does not fall within the exception. Id.

A third reason why the Secretary cannot follow the state court ruling is that it is not consistent with the law as established by the State's higher courts. The inconsistency is demonstrated in the discussion below.

B. Validity of the 1977 Divorce

Claimant was advised that her 1977 divorce was invalid because the action was dismissed when the second hearing on property and alimony was never held. Were this true, however, there would have been no need to petition the court to vacate the divorce; indeed, claimant would have needed to ask that the proceeding be reinstated first. This did not occur.

Claimant asked the court to vacate the 1977 divorce on the ground that a bifurcated proceeding -- divorce judgment, followed by separate ruling on property and alimony -- was held invalid by In re Marriage of Cohn, 93 Ill.2d 190, 443 N.E.2d 541 (1982). In Cohn, the Illinois Supreme Court held that under the prior law in effect since 1977 (since amended to address Cohn) a bifurcated divorce proceeding is justified only by certain circumstances, which must appear from the record. Id. at 545. Claimant's case does not fall into any of the examples given by Cohn, and no other justification appears from the record that might be evaluated for whether it is sufficiently similar to those in Cohn .

Although the 1977 divorce thus appears invalid under Cohn, Cohn also makes clear that the usual requirement of a single proceeding is waived if there was no timely objection at the trial court level. Id. at 549.. Thus, in Davies, supra, 448 N.E.2d at 884, and Walters, supra, 473 N.E.2d at 583, parties who had acquiesced in and accepted the benefits of a improperly bifurcated divorce decree were held to have waived the objection.

Two other principles under Illinois law reinforce this result, and would separately require it. A party who obtains a divorce and thereafter accepts the benefits by remarrying is estopped from asserting the invalidity of the divorce. Levy v. Dickstein, 388 N.E.2d 97 (Ill. App. 1979). Similarly, Illinois applies a strong presumption in favor of the validity of the last marriage and the corresponding divorce of the preceding marriage. Gray v... Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 1983); Davis v. Califano, 603 F.2d 618, 622 (7th Cir. 1972); Baer v. Deberry, 175 N.E.2d 673 (Ill.App. 1961); Miller v. Williams, 161 N.E.2d 42 (Ill. App. 1959). These principles serve public purposes: avoiding making the remarrying spouse a bigamist, legitimating children of the second marriage, and furthering basic notions of fairness. Id.

Claimant admits to her remarriage. She has not documented that she had it dissolved, nor would such action undermine the controlling application of the above public policies.

For the above stated reasons, claimant's 1977 divorce from the number holder is valid, and she is not his legal widow.

1/ Claimant's first attorney was officially replaced by another in August, 1975. The first attorney, now disbarred, allegedly handled the divorce case is less than a straightforward manner, and claimant represents that she relied on this attorney's representations that she was nonetheless divorced. Although the first attorney was officially replaced in 1975, she continued to appear on behalf of claimant when the divorce decree was issued in 1977. Claimant's allegation -- that she got the 1977 divorce without the numberholder being aware of it or receiving any papers -- is technically not correct. Both the numberholder and his attorney were given notice in 1977 of the hearing at which the divorce ruling was issued, and a return receipt for certified service of the notice on the numberholder is in the file. In addition, any reliance on this attorney's statements appears not reasonable in light of the fact that this was not her attorney of record.

2/ The advice came from claimant's first, disbarred attorney, now a "para- legal assistant" for another attorney who took over the first attorney's cases.

3/ Claimant was represented by the attorney who took over the cases of the "paralegal assistant."

4/ Claimant gave notice to the numberholder's attorney of record from 1975-1977, who advised the court that he no longer represented the number- holder.

5/ We have advised on occasion that the absence of a contest does not preclude following the state court ruling where to insist on it is to ask the impossible, as where the numberholder/wage earner's family and the claimant do not dispute the legal relationship. This is not such a case. Moreover, even in such a case, although the Secretary should usually follow the state court ruling, she is not required to do so.


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PR 06225.016 - Illinois - 09/09/2008
Batch run: 01/27/2009
Rev:09/09/2008