TN 3 (03-13)

PR 06225.050 Vermont

A. PR 13-048 Proper Termination Date of Widow’s Benefits Based on Vermont Supreme Court Decision Nullifying the Divorce in Widow’s Second Marriage

DATE: February 25, 2013

1. SYLLABUS

The claimant, the widow of a number holder (NH) who died in June 1979, remarried in June 1983 before she attained age 60. A Family Court granted a divorce from the claimant's second husband in May 2009, and she believed she was divorced at the time of her May 2009 application for benefits on the NH's record. The Vermont Supreme Court's reversal in February 2011 of the Family Court decision granting the divorce decree nullifies the divorce and provides that the claimant has been married since June 1983. Since the claimant was married in May 2009 when she applied for widow benefits on the NH's record, she does not qualify for the benefits and the effective date for termination of the claimant's widow benefits on the NH's record is her application date in May 2009.

2. OPINION

QUESTIONS PRESENTED

You asked for the proper effective date of the termination of widow’s benefits on the account of the number holder (NH), the widow’s first husband, in light of a Vermont Supreme Court decision reversing the decision of the trial court and vacating the divorce between the widow and her second husband, resulting in the widow failing to be “unmarried” at the time she applied for widow’s benefits.

ANSWER

BACKGROUND

The NH, Gilbert , died on June 11, 1979, while married to claimant Catherine. Prior to attaining age 60, claimant married Philip a Canadian citizen, on June 11, 1983.  Claimant was diagnosed with dementia in early 2007, and Gregory , claimant’s son with the NH, applied for and was named claimant’s permanent guardian in June 2007. In August 2007, claimant’s guardian filed for divorce from Philip on claimant’s behalf. The Orelans Family Court granted the divorce petition effective May 15, 2009. 

Philip challenged the Orleans Family Court decision, and, by order dated February 18, 2011, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the Orleans Family Court decision granting the divorce decree on the basis that claimant’s guardian lacked standing to file for divorce on claimant’s behalf. 

APPLICABLE LAW

A surviving spouse of an insured who has died is entitled to widow’s benefits if, among other things, such surviving spouse (1) files an application; (2) is at least 60 years old; (3) was validly married to the insured under State law; (4) was married to the insured for at least 9 months immediately before the insured died; and (5) is not currently married.  Section 202(e) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 402(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335. Accordingly, a widow may not collect widow’s benefits on the account of an insured if she was married at the time she applied for benefits. 

ANALYSIS

Under Vermont law, a marriage remains in effect until it is terminated by death, divorce, or annulment. See 15 Vt. Stat. Ann. §§ 511-51 (West 2013). The Vermont Supreme Court’s decision reversing the Orleans Family Court’s grant of claimant’s divorce petition effectively nullified the divorce, meaning that claimant and Philip have been married since June 1983. A review of Vermont law did not reveal any authority that would nullify or otherwise invalidate a marriage for the period between the original divorce decree and an appellate decision vacating the underlying divorce decree. Therefore, claimant was married at the time of her May 2009 application for widow’s benefits on the NH’s account, although, at the time, she believed she was divorced based on the Orleans Family Court order.  Accordingly, she did not satisfy the fifth requirement of Section 202(e) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 402(e), and 20 C.F.R. § 404.335, because she was married at the time of her application for benefits. 

For the foregoing reasons, we believe that the proper effective date of the termination of claimant’s benefits on the NH’s account is her application date in May 2009, because she was married on this date.

CONCLUSION

The February 2011 decision of the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the Orleans Family Court’s May 2009 grant of claimant’s divorce petition. Accordingly, claimant was legally married at the time she applied for widow’s benefits on the NH’s account. Therefore, the proper effective date of the termination of claimant’s benefits on the NH’s account is the date of her May 2009 application, because she was not “unmarried” on that date.  

Respectfully submitted,