You have asked us to provide an opinion regarding the following questions:
(1) Whether the district court of Salt Lake County, Utah, had the authority to set
aside a final divorce decree; (2) Whether the State court decree setting aside the
divorce decree met the criteria of Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c and was binding
on the Agency;
(3) Whether the decree setting aside the divorce had the effect of declaring the divorce
void or voidable; and
(4) Whether the parties could be considered to have been divorced from July 31, 2001,
until December 23, 2002, for purposes of section 202(d)(1)(H) of the Social Security
Act (the Act).
Ultimately the questions posed revolve around the issue of whether the number-holder's
step child continued to be eligible for child's benefits on his Social Security account
despite a final Decree of Divorce. For the purposes of determining the stepchild's
continued eligibility for benefits, we believe the relevant question is whether the
State court order setting aside the divorce was consistent with the criteria of SSR
83-37c and binding on the Agency. For the reasons discussed below, we do not believe
the order, which declared the Decree of Divorce null and void and of no effect (Order
of Consolidation, Setting Aside Decree of Divorce and Dismissal, December 2002, hereafter
the Order) satisfies all the criteria of SSR 83-37c. As a result, the order is not
binding on the Agency and the Agency may give full effect to the parties' July 31,
2001 Decree of Divorce.
Brent D~, the number holder (SSN ~), and Frances D~ were married in 1991. During October
1992, Mrs. D~'s daughter Amanda began receiving benefits on Mr. D~'s Social Security
record as his stepchild. On July 31, 2001, Mr. D~ was awarded an absolute and final
Decree of Divorce from Mrs. D~. Amanda's benefits were terminated. The Decree of Divorce,
which became final on July 31, 2001, _1 dissolved the bonds of matrimony between Mr.
D~ and Mrs. D~, but bifurcated the issues of property settlement and valuation for
a future trial. _2 A trial to resolve the property settlement was scheduled for August
15, 2001, but continued upon Mr. D~'s request. Mr. D~ died in September 2001, prior
to the property settlement trial being held.
On October 5, 2001, Mrs. D~ timely filed a motion, pursuant to Rule 60(b)(1) of the
Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, _3 with the district court of Salt Lake County requesting
the Decree of Divorce be set aside because of excusable neglect. _4 On October 25,
2001, one of Mr. D~'s biological daughters filed with the Salt Lake County District
Court a request for denial of the motion to set aside the Decree of Divorce. On November
22, 2002, a hearing on the motion to set aside the Decree of Divorce was held. On
December 23, 2002, the Honorable Robert H~ determined Mrs. D~ had established excusable
neglect in that the parties would have expected and believed that they would have
had a final distribution of the marital assets after the bifurcation of the matter
and in fact did not have a hearing in regard to the final distribution of the marital
assets due to the death of Mr. D~ (the Order p.2). The judge also determined that
the excusable neglect satisfied the requirements of Rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of
Civil Procedure, and granted Mrs. D~'s motion to set aside the July 31, 2001 Decree
Under the Program Operations Manual (POMS), "the effect of a judgment of divorce depends
on the State in which it is issued." POMS § GN 00305.145A. The Decree of Divorce provided that the divorce became final and absolute upon signature
and entry. In the present case, the divorce decree became final on July 31, 2001.
See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-7 (1953) (regarding finality of divorce decrees). Section 202(d)(1)(H)
of the Act provides that a child whose benefits are based on the wages and self-employment
income of a stepparent who is subsequently divorced from such child's natural parent,
becomes ineligible for benefits the month after the month in which such divorce becomes
final. As such, Amanda became ineligible for benefits on Mr. D~'s record in August
2001. See POMS § GN
00306.230. Then, as noted above, Mrs. D~ filed a post-judgment motion to set aside the final
Decree of Divorce, which the court granted. However, as discussed below, we believe
you would be justified in finding that the December 2002 Order was not binding on
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 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. The Agency determines questions
of family status by applying the law of the State in which the insured was domiciled
at the time of his death. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A). Since Mr. D~ was domiciled in
Utah when he died, Utah law would control the family status determination.
The Salt Lake County District Court order setting aside the Decree of Divorce determined
Mrs. D~'s spousal relationship to Mr. D~, an issue in Amanda's claim for benefits,
and the issue was determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction. See Utah Code Ann. § 78-3-4 (1953) (the district court has original jurisdiction in all
matters civil and criminal, not excepted in the Utah Constitution). Thus, the first
requirement of the Gray analysis was satisfied.
Mrs. D~'s spousal status does appear to have been "genuinely contested" within the
meaning of SSR 83-37c. To be genuinely contested, an issue must be disputed by parties
with opposing interests. See Gray, 474. F.2d at 1373 (6th Cir. 1973). The court records indicate that on October 19,
2001, Mr. D~'s daughter presented evidence and filed a request with the Salt Lake
County District Court to deny Mrs. D~'s motion to set aside the Decree of Divorce.
During September 2002, Mr. D~'s biological children and Mrs. D~ attempted to settle
the matter without litigation, but were unsuccessful. On November 22, 2002, a hearing
was held, at which Mr. D~'s daughters and Mrs. D~'s attorney appeared and presented
argument. As such, the second requirement of the Gray analysis was satisfied.
The determination of Mrs. D~'s spousal status falls within the general category of
domestic relations law, thereby satisfying the third step of the Gray analysis.
Thus, the matter comes down to whether the district court's ruling was consistent
with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State. We are unaware of any reported
cases where the Utah Supreme Court has ruled on the propriety of a Rule 60(b) motion
with facts similar to those at hand. Where the State Supreme Court has not spoken
on the particular area of law at issue, the Commissioner "is not required to follow
a lower court's decision to which she was not a party," but can disregard the decision
if she feels that it is contrary to what the Supreme Court of that State would rule
if presented with the question. See Rogers v. Sullivan, 795 F.Supp. 761, 764-65 (E.D.N.C. 1992) (quoting Cain v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 377 F.2d 55, 57 (4th Cir. 1967)); 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). Whether
or not the District Court would be reversed on appeal for abuse of discretion is not
controlling, what is controlling is whether the court 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).
The District Court determined that "under Rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure,
[Mrs. D~] had established excusable neglect in that the parties would have expected
and believed that they would have had a final distribution of the marital assets after
the bifurcation and did not have a hearing in regard to the same due to the death
of [Mr. D~]." Here, however, the court does not explain how Mr. D~'s death prior to
a hearing to distribute the marital assets amounts to excusable neglect under Rule
60(b). _5 Based upon the facts, we are of the opinion that the district court's decision
setting aside the Divorce Decree would not be consistent with the holding of the Utah
Supreme Court if they were to speak on this particular issue, and as such, is not
binding on the Agency. See, e.g., Wells Fargo Bank v. Kearns, 2001 WL 327756 (Utah App.) (failure to respond to a complaint did not raise to level
of 60(b) excusable neglect); Serrato v. Utah Transit Auth., 13 P.3d 616, 619 (Utah App. 2000) (trial court's inquiry [into excusable neglect]
is fundamentally equitable in nature, however, an equitable approach does not signify
that any negligence should rise to the level of excusable neglect); Interstate Excavating, Inc. v. Agla Development Corp, 611 P.2d 369, 372 (neglect to be excusable, must occur despite the exercise of due
diligence and failure of a party to appear in court does not constitute excusable
For the forgoing reasons, we believe the Divorce Decree was final on July 31, 2001,
and as such, Amanda became ineligible for benefits on Mr. D~'s record in August 2001.
Furthermore, we believe you would be justified in finding that under SSR 83-37c, the
December 2002 Order setting aside the Divorce Decree was not binding on the Agency.
_11 The Decree of Divorce "bec[a]me absolute and final upon signature and entry herein
. . ." The judge signed the Decree of Divorce on July 31, 2001. The clerk of the court
filed, i.e., entered it, on July 31, 2001.
_22 Trial courts have broad discretion to bifurcate divorce proceedings. The purpose
behind bifurcation of divorce proceedings is to allow for the parties to carry on
their personal lives and not be held hostage to more complicated and time consuming
tasks of determining property divisions. See Parker v. Parker, 996 P.2d 565, 567 (Utah Ct. App. 2000).
_33 A Rule 60(b)(1) motion allows a party relief from a final judgment because of
mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. Utah R. Civ. P., Rule 60 (Michie
_44 A 60(b)(1) motion has to be brought within three months after the date of the
judgment it seeks to set aside. See Breedemann v. Dep't of Workforce Servs., 2003 WL 2175111 (Utah App.).
_55 In her affidavit in support for her motion, Mrs. D~ stated among other things
that she never received notice of the hearing regarding the Motion to Bifurcate, and
that she was not present at the hearing. However, her attorney was present and the
Order on Motion to Bifurcate states that " the parties stipulated on the record that
the divorce shall be bifurcated."