You asked how a state court Order setting aside a Final Judgment of Divorce affects
a Social Security Administration (SSA) determination to terminate wife's insurance
benefits due to divorce.
The Order setting aside the Final Judgment of Divorce appears to encompass all aspects
of the Final Judgment and renders the Final Judgment null and void. Thus, the Order
nullifies the divorce itself and not just the property settlement, so that the SSA
may not terminate the wife's benefits on the basis of divorce.
Donna S. B~ (Claimant), the wife of Jimmie L. B~, the number holder (NH), was the
recipient of wife's insurance benefits as a spouse with child in care on the wage
record of NH. On June 5, 2009, NH furnished to SSA a Final Judgment of Divorce dated
June 4, 2009, from the Chancery Court of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi. The judgment
states that both NH and Claimant are residents of Mississippi. The judgment indicates
Claimant had not responded to the divorce complaint and did not appear at the divorce
hearing. This Judgment dissolved the marriage and disposed of property based on NH's
unrebutted allegations of improper conduct by Claimant. Based on this Judgment, SSA
terminated Claimant's benefits effective June 2009. On September 9, 2009, Claimant
furnished to SSA an Order from the same court granting her Motion to Set Aside Default
Judgment of Divorce. In its Order dated August 21, 2009, the court considered the
standards for setting aside a default judgment and concluded equity favored setting
aside its prior Judgment because Claimant's counsel withdrew from representing her
the day before the divorce hearing, Claimant had a colorable defense to the merits
of the claim, and NH would not be prejudiced if the default Judgment was set aside.
An individual may be eligible for wife's insurance benefits if she is the wife of
an individual who is entitled to Social Security old-age or disability insurance benefits
and has a child in her care entitled to child's insurance benefits on the husband's
wage or self-employment record. See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(b)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.330(c) (2009). Wife's insurance
benefits end if the wife and the wage earner divorce and she has not attained age
62. See Act § 202(b)(1)(G); 20 C.F.R. § 404.332(b)(2). The vacation or annulment of a divorce
decree generally permits reinstatement of entitlement to spouse's benefits previously
terminated by that divorce. See Program Operating Manuals System (POMS) GN 00305.145(B)(2).
An applicant is the wife of a fully insured individual if the courts of the state
in which such individual is domiciled at the time of application would find that such
applicant and such insured individual were validily married at the time of application.
Act § 216(h)(1(A)(i); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Here, we do not deal with an initial application, but rather
with an application for reinstatement of benefits, and thus apply the same principle.
"A divorce is valid if it was granted by the court in whose jurisdiction at least
one of the parties was domiciled at the time of the divorce." Program Operating Manual
Systems (POMS) GN 00305.170(A)(1). According to the Final Judgment of Divorce, both NH and Claimant were residents
of Mississippi at the time of the Final Judgment. Therefore we look to the Mississippi
law to determine whether the court's actions, taken together, rendered NH and Claimant
"For good cause shown, the court may set aside an entry of default and, if a judgment
by default has been entered, may likewise set it aside . . . ." Miss. R. Civ. Proc.
55(c) (2009). When a default judgment is set aside, "its prejudicial effect no longer
exists." Commercial Union Insurance Company v. Dairyland Insurance Company, 584 So. 2d 405, 408 (Miss. 1991). In a case analogous to the situation presented
here, a husband sued for a fault-based divorce. See Peterson v. Peterson, 648 So. 2d 54, 56 (Miss. 1995). Due to procedural irregularities, the Chancery Court,
in effect, granted a default judgment. Id. at 57. The wife filed a motion to set aside the property agreement and for other
relief. Id. at 55. The Mississippi Supreme Court, noting that the wife believed the divorce would
be for irreconcilable differences rather than fault-based, held that the Chancery
Court's decision granting the divorce was in error, and "[a]ll matters decided as
a result of the decree are null and void and should be brought in another hearing."
Id. at 57
Thus, in general, setting aside a default judgment nullifies the entire matter of
the judgment; therefore, setting aside the Judgment of Divorce in this case appears
to set aside the dissolution of the marriage and render NH and Claimant still married.
However, the Order setting aside the Final Judgment of Divorce conceivably may have
nullified only part of the decree (e.g., financial claims) and left the parties divorced.
We have not found any case law where setting aside a default judgment set aside only
part of the claim; conversely, we have not found any authority that setting aside
a default judgment always sets aside all aspects of the judgment, regardless of what
is challenged. Partial relief is possible when a court sets aside a divorce decree,
and the court did not specifically designate its Final Judgment of Divorce as a default
judgment. A court may tailor its holding so as to set aside only the property aspects
of a divorce decree. Where an ex-wife moved the court for relief from a judgment of
divorce that incorporated a property settlement she contested, the court held, "If
the agreement is unenforceable, then Cynthia and Perrin would have a divorce, but
the issues of child custody, child support, property division, and alimony would remain
unsettled." Lowery v. Lowery, 919 So. 2d 1112, 1119 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005).
In order to rule out the possibility of such a partial set-aside in the present case,
we turn to the specifics of the court's Order setting aside its decree of divorce.
The Order shows an intention to set aside both the property settlement and the divorce
itself. Claimant denied NH's charge of adultery and argued she was entitled to a more
favorable property settlement. The Order states, "[NH] will be required to prove his
grounds for divorce and relief but that is no more than he would have been required
to do had [Claimant] timely answered." The court concluded, "The Court believes that
equity favors setting aside this judgment and giving both sides an opportunity to
develop their case." We believe that the Order's language, especially that addressing
both "grounds for divorce" and "relief," indicates that the situation here is analogous
to that of Peterson, such that "[a]ll matters decided as a result of the decree are null and void and
should be brought in another hearing." 787 So. 2d at 1265; 648 So. 2d at 57. Thus,
NH and Claimant remain married until such time as the Chancery Court may issue a divorce
In addition, there is some question as to whether the Chancery Court had the power
to enter a default judgment of divorce. "[N]o judgment of by default may be granted"
for divorce. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-7(2). "No judgment of divorce shall be entered
against a person under a legal disability or a party to a suit for divorce or annulment
of marriage unless the claimant establishes his claim or rights by evidence . . .
." Miss. Miss. R. Civ. Proc. 55(e); see also Holmes v. Holmes, 628 So. 2d 1361, 1365-66 (Miss. 1993). The "evidence" cited by the court in its
original judgment for the fault-based divorce was "testimony." Judgment § VIII. However,
it is not necessary to second guess the validity of the original Judgment. First,
the court set aside the judgment. Second, the rule against default judgment only reinforces
our conclusion that NH and Claimant remain married.
For the foregoing reasons, we believe the Order setting aside the Final Judgment of
Divorce renders the divorce a nullity, such that Claimant and NH remained married.
Very truly yours,
Mary A. S~
Regional Chief Counsel
Assistant Regional Counsel