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
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
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,
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.