PR 06305.039 Ohio
A. PR 00-193 Effect of An Ex Parte Ohio Annulment of a Michigan Marriage on Eligibility for Wife's Benefits - Henry C~, SSN ~; Your Reference Number: S2D-F43911
DATE: March 1, 1991
Under Gray v. Richardson, the Secretary may disregard a State court determination when it fails to satisfy any one of four criteria:
A State court of competent jurisdiction has already determined the issue in a claim for Social Security benefits;
The issue was "genuinely contested" before the State court "by parties with opposing interests";
The issue involves domestic relations law;
The State court resolved the issue consistently with the law enunciated by the State's highest court.
Under Ohio law, the validity of a marriage is determined by the law of the State where the marriage contract was made.
Under Michigan law, a marriage is void at its inception if a spouse obtained the consent of the other by force or fraud. Fraud sufficient to annul a marriage must have induced the defrauded party to agree to the marriage and, in addition, it must have been "wholly subversive of the true essence of the [marriage] relation."
Under both Michigan and Indiana law, the presumption favoring the last marriage is rebutted by proof that a prior marriage was not dissolved by death or divorce.
NOTE: Effective for benefits payable 1/91 and later, a legal spouse does not bar the entitlement or reentitlement of a deemed spouse.
You asked us to determine the effect of a marriage annulment on the eligibility of two claimants for wife's benefits, both of whom claim to be the legal spouse of the insured worker. We have concluded that the second claimant, Dorothy W~ C~, has always been and continues to be the legal spouse of the insured worker, Henry C~. She is entitled to collect wife's benefits on his account. A summary of the pertinent facts and the legal basis for our decision follow.
A. Facts of the case.
In 1986, Ellen N~ C~ (Ellen) began receiving wife's benefits as the wife of an insured worker, Henry C~ (Henry). At this time, Henry represented to SSA that Ellen was his only spouse and that he had not been married before his present marriage to Ellen./ In December 1989, Dorothy W~ C~ (Dorothy) applied for wife's benefits as Henry's wife. SSA determined that Dorothy was Henry's lawful spouse and awarded her wife's benefits, terminating Ellen's benefits in July 1990. Ellen filed a reconsideration with SSA in July 1990, protesting termination of her wife's benefits because of Dorothy's entitlement.
Subsequently, in early 1990, Henry initiated judicial proceedings to annul his marriage to Dorothy in Ohio Domestic Relations Court. He filed an affidavit with the court, swearing he had not seen Dorothy since February 1, 1947 and could not locate her with reasonable effort. Accordingly, Dorothy received publication notice of the annulment proceeding. See, Ohio Rev. Code § 3105.06 (authorizing publication notice for annulment proceedings). In August 1990, the court annulled the Michigan marriage between Henry and Dorothy on the grounds that Dorothy had procured the marriage through fraud. Dorothy, however, neither learned of nor appeared and participated in the annulment proceeding and, consequently, the annulment decree was entered ex parte.
SSA has gathered the following information from the parties:
Henry and Dorothy were married in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on February 1, 1947. According to Dorothy, she and Henry lived together for almost the first two years of their marriage, until sometime in December of 1948. Dorothy alleges she notified Henry that she intended to move to Ohio and live with her sister who resided there in order to escape domestic difficulties in their marriage. She then left Henry and went to Ohio, moving into her sister's home. Dorothy claims Henry visited her in Ohio on one occasion, but they did not reconcile at this time. She did not meet Henry again, and she assumed he returned to Michigan and lived there. Dorothy never sought, obtained, nor received notice of a judicial dissolution of this marriage. When SSA informed her about the annulment, she protested that her marriage should not have been annulled.
In addition, Dorothy's sister, Annie S~ (Annie), alleges she was acquainted with Henry long before he and her sister married. According to Annie, once married, the couple lived together in Grand Rapids, Michigan for a few years, and then Dorothy moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Annie knew of no divorce terminating the marriage.
Moreover, although he admits he married Dorothy, Henry alleges he and Dorothy cohabited during only the first week of their marriage and, then, Dorothy left him for a paramour./ Henry also contends that, soon after Dorothy left him, he consulted with an attorney, but decided not to judicially dissolve the marriage because of financial restrictions. Henry also contends that he never again met Dorothy after she left him and that, when he inquired about her whereabouts, Dorothy's family informed him she was dead. Henry acknowledges that he never obtained a judicial dissolution of this marriage until 1990, when he obtained the Ohio annulment. In August, 1950, Henry and Ellen N~ C~ (Ellen) were married in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
B. Discussion of the law.
The Social Security Act entitles the wife of an insured worker to wife's benefits on the worker's earnings record if she satisfies several statutory requirements and, thus, meets the definition of "wife" under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 402(b)(1); c.f., S.S.R. 67-58, 1967 C.B. 9. Among these requirements is section 216(h), which provides in pertinent part:
An applicant is the wife . . . of a fully or currently insured individual . . . if the courts of the State in which such insured individual is domiciled at the time such applicant files an application . . . would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly married at the time such applicant files an application. If such courts would not find that such applicant and such insured were validly married at such time, such applicant shall, nevertheless, be deemed to be the wife . . . of such insured individual if such applicant would, under the laws applied by such courts in determining the devolution of intestate property, have the same status with respect to the taking of such property as a wife of such insured individual.
42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A). Under this section, then, a woman is a "wife" for the purposes of receiving wife's benefits if the courts in the worker's state of domicile would, at the time of her application, find (1) she and the worker are validly married, or (2) she has the status as a wife under the laws of intestacy, and would take a wife's share of the worker's intestate estate. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345 (1990). Accordingly, whether Dorothy or Ellen is entitled to benefits depends on whether, under Ohio law, their respective marriages to Henry are valid and whether the annulment affects the validity of either marriage. Dorothy or Ellen might also be a wife if, under Ohio intestacy law, she would have the same status as a wife for the purposes of inheriting from the worker, if he died intestate.
In general, although he is not bound by a state court decision in a proceeding to which he was not a party, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (the "Secretary") may not disregard a state court's determination of an issue in a claim for social security benefits if it fairly and consistently represents state law. Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1973) (holding); George v. Sullivan, 909 F.2d 857, 860 (6th Cir. 1990); see also, S.S.R. 83-37c, 1983 C.B. 17 (adopting Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370). Nevertheless, under the rule from Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, the Secretary may disregard a state court determination when it fails to satisfy any one of four criteria:
1. A state court of competent jurisdiction has already determined the issue in a claim for social security benefits;
2. The issue was "genuinely contested" before the state court "by parties with opposing interests";
3. The issue involves domestic relations law;
4. The state court resolved the issue consistently with the law enunciated by the state's highest court.
George v. Sullivan, 909 F.2d at 860; accord, Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d at 1373. As a result, we conclude for the reasons that follow that SSA may ignore the Ohio annulment and, instead, make its own, independent determination as to which of the marriages is valid under Ohio law, the worker's state of domicile.
We advise SSA to disregard the annulment. In so doing, we have determined that the second claimant, Dorothy W~ C~, is the legal spouse of the insured worker, Henry C~, and is exclusively entitled to collect wife's benefits on his account.
1. SSA may disregard the Ohio annulment because it did not meet the criteria specified in Gray v. Richardson.
The annulment proceeding and decree did not satisfy the second and fourth criteria of the list enumerated by the Sixth Circuit in Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d at 1373; George v. Sullivan, 909 F.2d at 860. The second criterion was not satisfied because the annulment resulted from an ex parte proceeding and was, therefore, not the product of a "genuinely contested" state court proceeding. Only Henry was present, Dorothy having received no actual notice and having had no opportunity to "genuinely contest" the annulment. As a result, the court was not apprised of Dorothy's version of the facts and, had it considered them, may have refused to grant the annulment.
The Ohio annulment also failed to meet the fourth criterion because the court improperly applied Ohio law when it annulled the Michigan marriage between Dorothy and Henry. First, under Ohio law, the validity of a marriage is determined by the lex loci contractus, or the law of the state where the marriage contract was made. Mazzolini v. Mazzolini, 168 Ohio St. 357, 358, 155 N.E.2d 206, 208 (1958) (citing McDowell v. Sapp, 39 Ohio St. 558, 560 (1883) for this proposition). Thus, Michigan law governs the validity of the marriage between Dorothy and Henry because it was solemnized in Michigan. Although the court ostensibly applied the principal of lex loci contractus, it nevertheless held the marriage void for fraud under both Michigan law and Ohio law (annulment decree, Pages 3-4). The court's holding based on Ohio law is erroneous. The principal of lex loci contractus generally prohibits a court from applying any law other than the law of the place where the marriage was contracted in determining the validity of an out-of-state marriage, Id. Consequently, the court should have only applied Michigan law in this case./
Second, the court should not have held the marriage void for fraud under Michigan law. The court decided Dorothy lacked "serious intent to remain married and enter into the relation of husband and wife" at the time she married Henry (annulment decree, page 3). In so deciding, the court appears to have found that Dorothy falsely told Henry she loved nobody but Henry, but then left Henry for a paramour shortly after the marriage ceremony. Id.
This type of wrongdoing is probably insufficient to constitute fraud warranting a marriage annulment. In Michigan, a marriage is void at its inception if a spouse obtained the consent of the other by force or fraud. M.C.L.A. § 552.2. Fraud sufficient to annul a marriage must have induced the defrauded party to agree to the marriage and, in addition, it must have been "wholly subversive of the true essence of the [marriage] relation." Yanoff v. Yanoff, 237 Mich. 383, 387, 211 N.W. 735, 736 (1927), overruled on other grounds, Sarafin v. Sarafin, 401 Mich. 634, 258 N.W.2d 461 (1977); Leavitt v. Leavitt, 13 Mich. 452, 457 (1865). Although we have found no Michigan case directly on point with the present case, one Michigan Supreme Court opinion indicates that an annulment is proper when a spouse's disingenuous display of affection prior to the marriage belied an ulterior motive to obtain a particularly devious objective. See, Abrahams, Annulments for Lack of Love and Affection, 16 Clev.-Marshall L. Rev. 180 (1967). For instance, Sampson v. Sampson, 332 Mich. 220, 50 N.W.2d 767 (1952), involved an annulment of a marriage between an elderly widow and a young sailor. In affirming the annulment, the Michigan Supreme Court opined that the sailor never intended a "real marriage" with his wife, but had married the widow for the sole purpose of defrauding her out of her property. Thus, two facts, the sailor's lack of affection and his hidden motive for marriage, combined to warrant the annulment. Accord, Gillett v. Gillett, 78 Mich. 184, 43 N.W. 1101 (1889)(sustaining annulment where young woman married old and "broken" man because he was about to receive a liberal pension and, thus, her "motive for conspiracy was manifest"). In the present case, however, Henry did not allege and the court did not conclude that Dorothy's claims of love belied a devious ulterior motive to defraud Henry. Indeed, most state courts hold that a marriage may not be annulled simply because a party falsely pledged her love to her spouse at the time of their marriage. Abrahams, supra, at 180. Michigan courts would probably follow this well-settled rule.
Moreover, we believe the court lacked sufficient proof to annul the marriage for fraud. In Michigan, proof of fraud must be "clearly" established. Yanoff v. Yanoff, 237 Mich. at 387, 211 N.W. at 736 (common law rule) (baby's birth date showed conception must have occurred long before husband and wife ever met). Nevertheless, Henry did not allege and the court did not consider facts showing that Dorothy had a paramour before, rather than after, the parties' marriage and, thus, intentionally deceived Henry at the time of the marriage./ Additionally, Henry did not allege and the court did not consider whether the parties lived together after Henry discovered the alleged fraud, which would preclude an annulment under Michigan law. M.C.L.A. § 552.37; Boyce v. McKenna, 211 Mich. 204, 178 N.W. 701 (1920) (a couple must not voluntarily live together after the defrauded party has discovered, and obtained satisfactory proof, of the fraud). As a result, SSA should ignore the Ohio annulment in making its benefits determination.
2. The first marriage is the only valid marriage for benefit purposes.
Once having decided to disregard the annulment, SSA must then decide whether Ohio courts would find either the first or second marriage valid. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A). Ohio courts would employ the principle of lex loci contractus and, thus, apply the laws of Michigan and Indiana in determining which of these out-of-state marriages was valid. Mazzolini v. Mazzolini, 168 Ohio St. at 358, 155 N.E.2d at 208. Where one spouse has entered into two marriages, the law in both Indiana and Michigan presumes that his second marriage is valid and that his prior marriage has terminated. Boulton v. McIntire, 119 Ind. 574, 21 N.E. 445 (1889); Beaudin v. Suarez, 365 Mich. 534, 113 N.W.2d 818 (1962). Nevertheless, this presumption favoring the later marriage is rebutted by a "high degree of proof" to the contrary. Rainer v. Snider, 174 Ind. App. 615, 369 N.E.2d 666 (1977); In re Adams Estate, 362 Mich. 624, 626, 107 N.W.2d 764, 766 (1961) ("clear and positive proof"). Under the facts in the present case, the courts in both states would probably find that this presumption has been rebutted and the first marriage, between Dorothy and Henry, is valid.
Courts in Indiana and Michigan appear to require proof that a prior marriage was not dissolved by death or divorce. Boulton, 119 Ind. 574, 21 N.E. 445; Rainer, 174 Ind. App. 615, 369 N.E.2d 666 (proof that prior marriage was not dissolved by death or divorce is sufficient to rebut the presumption); Beaudin v. Suarez, 364 Mich. 534, 113 N.W.2d 818 (proof that prior marriage was not dissolved is sufficient to rebut the presumption); In re Adam's Estate, 362 Mich. 624, 107 N.W.2d 764 (1961); Quinn v. Quinn, 4 Mich. App. 536, 145 N.W.2d 252 (1966) (one uncorroborated sighting of wife's prior spouse was insufficient to prove that he was alive at time of subsequent marriage and, thus, such proof failed to rebut the presumption). In the present case, Dorothy was alive when Henry remarried. Although Henry claims he believed Dorothy was dead when he remarried, Dorothy's claims that Henry knew she lived in Ohio and that he once visited her there, are more convincing./ Moreover, a 1947 marriage certificate and the clear admissions of Dorothy and Henry show that they were married. Both parties also admit that they, themselves, did not judicially dissolve their marriage/ and were never notified of marriage dissolution proceedings. In sum, the facts in this case appear to rebut the presumption of the validity of the second marriage between Ellen and Henry. Because her marriage is invalid in Ohio, Ellen may not establish she is Henry's "wife" for the purposes of obtaining wife's benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A).
Furthermore, Ellen may not establish entitlement to wife's benefits under the alternative definition of "wife." 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A). A claimant is considered the "wife" of the insured worker if she would have the status of wife under the laws of intestacy in the worker's state of residence, and inherit accordingly. Under the Ohio statute of descent and distribution, the surviving "spouse" of the deceased inherits a portion of the intestate estate. Ohio Rev. Code § 2105.06. Once again, Ohio courts would apply Indiana law, the place of Ellen's marriage, and would conclude that she is not Henry's "spouse" because their marriage was invalid. Consequently, Ellen would not inherit as Henry's "surviving spouse" and, therefore, may not obtain wife's benefits because she lacks the "same status" as a wife under the Ohio laws of intestacy./ 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A).