You have asked whether an invalidity-of-marriage judgment entered on May 24, 2006,
and relating to the marriage between numberholder, James E. R~, and spouse's benefits
recipient, Norma M~ C~, would have any effect on Norma's continued eligibility for
spouse's benefits on James's account. As discussed below, we conclude that, under
Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c (G~ v. R~), the Agency should not give the judgment
for invalidity of marriage dispositive weight, but should independently determine
whether the judgment entered was consistent with prevailing state law. We further
conclude that, because there is no indication in the judgment or other documents of
record that the state court made the required findings necessary for a valid annulment
or dissolution of marriage, the judgment was not consistent with prevailing state
law. As such, the judgment should not change the status of the parties marital relationship
for purposes of entitlement to Agency benefits.
The record contains an apparently official marriage certificate from the Commonwealth
of Puerto Rico indicating that, in November 1967, James and Norma were married. You
indicated that James and Norma separated some time after the marriage, and that James
subsequently married three additional times.
In March 2005, the Agency established the marriage, and awarded spousal benefits to
Norma on James's account. James then submitted a signed statement to the Agency denying
that he had married Norma, and he asked for an "original signed form to prove that
it was not my signature and not me." At some point thereafter, the marriage certificate
described above was added to the file.
Some time later, James filed a petition in Illinois State court seeking to have the
marriage declared invalid. The petition indicated that James was aware of Norma's
award of spousal benefits, and asserted that Norma's "claim" was fraudulent. Based
on the petition, the Cook County Circuit Court issued a judgment for invalidity of
marriage, finding that "the purported marriage ceremony between the parties on November
2, 1967, in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico," was "null, void, and invalid ab initio." The
judgment indicated that Norma was notified of the proceedings by publication, but
that, according to James, she lived out of state and her whereabouts were unknown.
As you know, to be entitled to spouse benefits, a claimant must be the legal spouse
of a numberholder entitled to RIB or DIB. POMS RS 00202.001(A)(1), (C). And, the claimant will be found to be the legal spouse of the numberholder
if it is determined that she is validly married to the numberholder under the state
law of the numberholder's domicile at the time that the application is filed. POMS
RS 00202.001(A)(1). Here, Norma was found to be James's legal spouse and was awarded spouse's
These benefits stop when the marriage to the numberholder ends by divorce (unless
the spouse is entitled to divorced spouse's benefits) or the marriage to the numberholder
is annulled. POMS RS 00202.040(A). The validity of the divorce or annulment is assessed by considering the law of
the numberholder's domicile at death or at the time the application was filed, which,
in this matter, is Illinois. POMS GN
The judgment for invalidity of marriage found that the parties' marriage was null,
void, and invalid ab initio. However, because this state court domestic relations
order was not genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests (in that Norma
did not appear), the Agency must determine whether the order was consistent with prevailing
state law. SSR 83-37c (G~ v. R~); POMS PR 04805.025 Michigan (A. PR 07-097) (applying SSR 83-37c to an uncontested annulment judgment);
POMS PR 04805.016 Illinois (A. PR 97-004) (applying SSR 83-37c to an apparently uncontested order vacating
a divorce decree); P~ v. S~, 898 F.2d 578, 580-81 (7th Cir. 1990) (holding that "the validity of a marriage for
purposes of the Social Security Act depends not on the contents of an ex parte [divorce]
order by a state trial court, but on what the highest court of the state would do
with that order if it were challenged"); see also T~ v. A~, 1998 WL 597643 at **2 (7th Cir.) (recognizing applicability of SSR 83-37c to state
court paternity judgment).
Under Illinois law, the grounds for declaring a marriage to be invalid are (1) that
a party lacked the capacity to consent to the marriage or was induced to enter the
marriage by force, duress, or fraud; (2) that a party lacked the ability to consummate
the marriage; (3) that a party aged 16 or 17 years did not have parental or judicial
consent; or (4) that the marriage was prohibited (e.g., bigamy). 750 Ill. Comp. Stat.
Ann. 5/301 (West 2007). The ground for invalidity must be shown by a preponderance
of the evidence, and, in addition, depending on the grounds for the declaration of
invalidity, various time limits apply-ranging from 90 days after learning of the ground
up to 3 years after the death of the first party to die. 750 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann.
5/302 (West 2007). Although James asserted in his petition that he never married Norma
and thus that her claim was fraudulent, he does not allege that he was fraudulently induced to enter a marriage,
which could be a basis for a declaration of invalidity. And, the state court judgment
fails to indicate any valid basis for invalidity. Moreover, there is no indication
in either the petition or the judgment that the petition was filed within the requisite
time limit. Under these circumstances, it is not clear that the state court judgment
was consistent with prevailing state law, and thus the Agency is not bound by the
state court judgment of invalidity. POMS PR 04805.016 Illinois (A. PR 97-004).
Although we have been unable to locate any definitive law on point, it is possible
that the judgment could also operate as a divorce decree for purposes of entitlement
to Agency benefits, but, again, only if the judgment and/or other evidence of record
showed that the court's decision was consistent with state law. POMS PR 04805.025 Michigan (A. PR 07-097). In Illinois, a judgment for dissolution of marriage requires
either a showing of fault, or that the parties have lived apart for more than 2 years,
that irreconcilable differences have caused the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage
and that efforts at reconciliation have failed or would not be in the best interests
of the family. 750 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/401(a) (West 2007). But, neither the decree
nor any other evidence of record shows that one of these grounds was satisfied. Thus,
the Agency also should not accept the state court judgment as a dissolution of marriage.
Because the judgment does not appear to satisfy the prevailing state law requirements
for a declaration of invalidity or a dissolution of marriage, the Agency is not bound
by the judgment. In the absence of any other pertinent evidence that would provide
a basis for reopening, the Agency should continue to honor its March 2005 determination
establishing the marriage and awarding Norma spousal benefits.
As discussed above, we conclude that the judgment should not change the status of
the parties marital relationship for purposes of entitlement to Agency benefits.
Donna L. C~
Regional Chief Counsel, Region V
Assistant Regional Counsel