TN 4 (07-17)

PR 06225.035 New York

A. PR 17-091 Validity of New York Court Order Vacating Divorce Judgment and Claimant's Eligibility for Widower's Benefits

Date: June 2, 2017

1. Syllabus

The number holder (NH) was living in New York at the time of her death in 2008; therefore, the claimant’s relationship to the NH will be determined under New York law. The New York State Supreme Court found that the Claimant had not been served with divorce papers by the NH, and had only first learned of the divorce in 2009. The court also found that the waiver and affidavit of service could not have been signed by the Claimant in 1991 because he was not in New York at that time.

The New York State Supreme Court’s order to vacate the divorce judgment satisfies the criteria listed in SSR 83-37c and is therefore binding on the Agency. The order vacated the divorce judgment and restored the parties’ marriage, as if they had never been divorced. As a result, the Claimant was legally married to the NH for the nine months prior to her death in 2008, and is entitled to widower’s benefits as her surviving spouse, assuming that the Claimant has satisfied the other statutory and regulatory requirements for such benefits.

2. Opinion

QUESTION PRESENTED

Whether a New York State court order vacating the divorce of F~ and D~ is valid and binding on the Agency, and whether the Claimant is entitled to widower’s benefits as the surviving spouse of D~.

OPINION

The New York State Supreme Court’s order to vacate the divorce judgment satisfies the criteria listed in Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c, and is therefore binding on the Agency. As a result, the Claimant was legally married to the NH for the nine months prior to her death, and is therefore entitled to widower’s benefits on her account, assuming that the Claimant has satisfied the other statutory and regulatory requirements for such benefits.

BACKGROUND1

D~ (NH) and F~ (Claimant) were legally married in New York State on December XX, 1986.

On September XX, 1991, the NH brought an action for a judgment of absolute divorce against the claimant, alleging that he had abandoned her. On March XX, 1992, the Supreme Court granted the divorce, and issued a judgment of absolute divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law Section 170(2). See N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law §170(2) (McKinney 2016). The divorce judgment states that F~ was served in person with the divorce action within the State of New York.

The NH filed a retirement claim on May XX, 2008, at which time she listed a terminated marriage to F~. She reported that the marriage had ended in divorce in Brooklyn on January XX, 1988. The NH subsequently died on October XX, 2008 in Brooklyn, New York.

F~ filed a retirement claim on his own account on May XX, 2012, and indicated that he had been divorced from the NH on March XX, 1992. He provided a copy of the 1992 divorce judgment to the Agency on May XX, 2012.

On September XX, 2015, F~ filed an order to show cause with an application to vacate the 1992 divorce judgment. In his Complaint, F~ alleged that he never had been served with the divorce action, and that his signature had been forged on the waiver and affidavit of service. He further alleged that he had not been living in New York in 1991.

On June XX, 2016, Judge W~ of the New York State Supreme Court held an inquest, at which F~, his attorney, and an attorney representing the Estate of D~ appeared. At the hearing, the Judge found that F~ had not been served with divorce papers by D~, and had only first learned of the divorce in 2009. Judge W~ further found that the waiver and affidavit of service could not have been signed by F~ in 1991 because he was not in New York at that time. The court therefore granted F~’s application to vacate the divorce judgment.

On July XX, 2016, the New York State Supreme Court issued an order to vacate the divorce judgment, and further ordered that the marriage be restored as of March XX, 1992, as if the parties had never been divorced.

On July XX, 2016, the Claimant filed for widower benefits on the NH’s record.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND ANALYSIS

A. Social Security Act and Regulations

To receive benefits as the widower of an insured wage earner, a claimant must, among other requirements, have been in a valid marital relationship for at least 9 months immediately prior to the insured’s death.2 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(f) and 416(g) (defining “widower”), 416(h)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335(a)(1); 404.344-45. SSA looks to the laws of the state where the insured had a permanent home at the time of her death to determine whether the claimant and insured were validly married. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. The NH was living in New York at the time of her death in 2008, and the claimant’s relationship to the NH will therefore be determined under New York law.

B. Social Security Ruling 83-37c and the Gray Analysis

On July XX, 2016, the New York State Supreme Court issued an order to vacate the divorce judgment and restore the parties’ marriage as of March XX, 1992. Thus, the relevant question is whether the court order vacating the divorce judgment is valid and binding on the Agency.

In SSR 83–37c, which adopts the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973), the Agency explains when it is bound by State court decisions on family law issues. The SSR provides that the Agency must not ignore a State court’s decision where: (1) an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits has been determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction; (2) the issue was genuinely contested before a State court with opposing interests; (3) the issue falls within 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. SSR 83-37c.

1. The Issue of the Claimant’s Marital Status Has Been Decided by a Court of Competent Jurisdiction

“The supreme court shall have general original jurisdiction in law and equity,” and has exclusive jurisdiction over divorce actions.3 N.Y. Const. art. VI, § 7(a). Furthermore, “[t]he court which rendered a judgment or order may relieve a party from it upon such terms as may be just.” C.P.L.R. 5015(a). The Supreme Court entered the original judgment of divorce in 1992, and had jurisdiction to vacate the judgment in 2016. Accordingly, the claimant’s marital status was determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction.4 Thus, the first requirement of the Gray analysis is satisfied.

2. The Issue Was Genuinely Contested By Parties With Opposing Interests

To be genuinely contested, an issue must be disputed by parties with opposing interests. See Gray, 474. F.2d at 1373 (6th Cir. 1973). F~'s marital status appears to have been “genuinely contested” within the meaning of SSR 83–37c.

Prior to filing his motion to vacate the divorce judgment, F~ moved for the Kings County Public Administrator to be appointed as a representative of the Estate of D~. F~ then served the motion to vacate the divorce judgment on the designated counsel for the Kings County Public Administrator for the Estate of D~. The attorney for the Estate appeared at the inquest held before Judge W~ on June XX, 2016, and asked the court to consider the amount of time that had passed since the divorce action, the unavailability of evidence to contradict F~’s testimony, and the remote possibility that some other assets could be found that F~ would be able to inherit. We therefore believe that under the circumstances, the attorney fulfilled his ethical obligation to properly represent the Estate of D~. As such, we believe that the second requirement of the Gray analysis was also satisfied. 5

3. The State Court Determined an Issue of Domestic Relations Law

The determination of the Claimant’s marital status falls within the general category of domestic relations law, thereby satisfying the third step of the Gray analysis.

4. The Court’s Order is not Inconsistent with Any Law Enunciated by the New York Court of Appeals

Finally, the Court’s Order does not appear to be inconsistent with any law enunciated by the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State.

Under New York State law, a court that rendered a judgment may relieve a party from the judgment with a sufficient showing of fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party. See CPLR 5015(a)(3). A defendant seeking to vacate a judgment of divorce under CPLR 5015(a)(3) has the burden of establishing, by admissible evidence, the existence of fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct on the plaintiff's part sufficient to entitle him or her to vacatur.6 See Thakur v. Thakur, 49 A.D.3d 861, 861 (2d Dep’t 2008). A decision to vacate due to fraud is a matter of the court’s discretion, and is subject to reversal only where there has been a clear abuse of that discretion. See Matter of Mclaughlin, 111 A.D.3d 1185, 1186 (3d Dep’t 2013); Augustin v. Augustin, 79 A.D.3d 651 (1st Dep’t 2010); see also Nash v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 22 N.Y.3d 220, 225-26 (2013) (“[CPLR] 5015(a) makes clear that the motion court's determination to vacate a judgment is a discretionary one.”).

The Federal courts have made it clear that whether or not the lower court’s decision would be reversed on appeal for abuse of discretion is not controlling. Rather, the proper inquiry is whether the court’s order was consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State. See, e.g., Outwater for Mcclinchey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 894 F. Supp. 1114, 1120 (E.D. Mich. 1995) (“Gray requires that the proceeding be consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court of the State, whether or not an order would be reversed for abuse of discretion is not controlling.”). We are unaware of any reported cases where the New York Court of Appeals has ruled on the propriety of a motion with facts similar to those at hand. Accordingly, deference should be given to the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate the divorce order. See Warren v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 868 F.2d 1444, 1447 (5th Cir. 1989) (a lower court decision should be followed if it is fair and logical and no authoritative decision to the contrary exists).

CONCLUSION

The New York State Supreme Court’s order to vacate the divorce judgment satisfies the criteria listed in SSR 83-37c and is therefore binding on the Agency. The order vacated the divorce judgment and restored the parties’ marriage, as if they had never been divorced. As a result, the Claimant was legally married to the NH for the nine months prior to her death in 2008, and is entitled to widower’s benefits as her surviving spouse, assuming that the Claimant has satisfied the other statutory and regulatory requirements for such benefits.


Footnotes:

[1]

The Center for Programs Support (CPS) provided this office with copies of the following documents: the parties’ marriage certificate, the NH’s death certificate, the complaint filed in the divorce action, the 1992 divorce judgment, the Claimant’s motion to vacate the divorce judgment, the 2016 hearing transcript, and the 2016 order to vacate the divorce This opinion is based on the facts as presented.

[2]

. The regulations contain exceptions to the 9-month duration requirement; however, those exceptions are not relevant to this matter. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(2).

[3]

. Under this grant of authority, the Supreme Court “is competent to entertain all causes of action unless its jurisdiction has been specifically proscribed” Thrasher v. United States Liab. Ins. Co., 19 N.Y.2d 159, (1967) The authority to grant a divorce, and all ancillary relief other than support, maintenance custody and visitation, was not granted to the Family Court by the Legislature, and thus, the Supreme Court retains exclusive jurisdiction over divorce actions. See N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act §§ 411, 466 (McKinney 2017); Kagen v. Kagen, 21 N.Y.2d 532 (1968), O’Dell v. O’Dell, 104 A.D.3d 770 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., App. Div. 2d Dept. 2013); see also: Divorce Information & Frequently Asked Questions, New York State Unified Court System, available at http://www.nycourts.gov/divorce/info_faqs.shtml#Where do I go for a divorce? (last visited May 16, 2017) (“The Supreme Court of the State of New York is the only court that handles divorce cases, and a Supreme Court judge is the only person who can legally grant a divorce. . . . You cannot get a divorce in Family Court.”).

[4]

. The Supreme Court’s order to vacate the divorce judgment restored the NH’s marriage as of March XX, 1992, as if the parties had never been divorced. Thus, the Claimant was married to the NH at least 9 months immediately prior to the NH’s death, and his marital status was determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction.

[5]

. Although the claimant has not provided evidence that the attorney representing the Estate actually opposed F~’s motion to vacate the divorce, we believe that the attorney’s appearance and participation at the hearing is sufficient. Moreover, courts have emphasized that as a general rule, the federal government should give deference to a state court’s determination of a domestic relations issue. See Gray, 474 F.2d at 1373 (“a situation falling within the general category of domestic relations, special deference should be given by federal tribunals to the resolution by the State court.”); see also Hanson v. Astrue, 733 F. Supp. 2d 214, 218 (D. Mass. 2010) (“What [SSR 83-37c] says is that when its four enumerated conditions are met, the Commissioner ‘is not free to ignore an adjudication of a State trial court.’ That is, under those conditions, the state adjudication must be respected. The ruling does not say that the Commissioner may not follow a state adjudication unless the four conditions are met. It would not be inconsistent with the ruling for the Commissioner to follow a state adjudication even though fewer than all the conditions were met, subject to bounds of reason and good faith.”). Given that the courts have emphasized that the federal government should generally defer to the state courts on issues involving domestic relations, we believe that the attorney’s appearance and participation on behalf of the estate of the NH at the hearing is sufficient.

[6]

. Notably, CPLR 5015(a)(3) does not contain a time limit for moving to vacate a judgment on the basis of fraud. New York courts have held that any motion to vacate a judgment pursuant to CPLR 5015(a)(3) must be made within a “reasonable time.” See Weimer v. Weimer, 281 A.D.2d 989, 989 (4th Dep’t 2001) (4 year delay was not reasonable); Richardson v. Richardson, 309 A.D.2d 795, 796 (2d Dep’t 2003) (12 year delay unreasonable); Sieger v. Sieger, 51 A.D.3d 1004, 1006 (2d Dep’t 2008), lv. denied 14 N.Y.3d 711 (2010) (7 year delay unreasonable). However, it is a matter of the court’s discretion to determine whether a motion to vacate was made within a reasonable time. See Sieger, 51 A.D.3d at 1006.


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PR 06225.035 - New York - 07/06/2017
Batch run: 07/06/2017
Rev:07/06/2017