You asked us to provide an opinion on whether the Montana District Court had the authority
to void the marriage of Anthony from its inception or whether the District Court’s
annulment was only effective as of the date of its Order annulling the marriage.
Although the Montana courts have the statutory authority to declare a marriage void
on the grounds of mental incapacity, we believe that the Agency is not bound by the
District Court’s order in this case. This is because we have no objective evidence
other than the cursory District Court order indicating that the marriage was void
from the outset under Montana law. Therefore, we conclude that Anthony’s marriage
was merely voidable. As such, his benefits should be reinstated as of the month the
annulment decree was entered and not retroactive to the date of the marriage.
Anthony became entitled to survivor benefits under number holder Lewis’s record in
May of 1989 and re-entitled to benefits in June of 2007. Anthony’s benefits were terminated
in April 2010 following his marriage to Leigha on April 27, 2010.
Anthony and Leigha filed for an annulment of the marriage in the District Court of
Sanders County, Montana, in 2011. The District Court granted an annulment on May 3,
2011, on the grounds of lack of capacity to consent due to an undiagnosed brain cyst.
Under the Social Security Act (“Act”), a child is eligible for child’s insurance benefits
on the account of an eligible wage earner if the child is, among other requirements,
dependent on the insured, not married, and under the age of 18 (or a full-time student
or disabled before the age of 22). See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350; Programs Operations Manual System (POMS)
DI 10115.001; POMS RS 00203.001 (each outlining the requirements for child’s insurance benefits). Because your question
pertains only to Anthony’s annulled marriage and its effect on his benefits, our analysis
focuses solely on this eligibility factor.
A child’s eligibility for insurance benefits ends if the child marries. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)(D); 20 C.F.R. § 404.352(b)(4). However, a child is considered
“unmarried” if the marriage is void. See POMS RS 00203.20. A “void” marriage is one which was legally non-existent from the
outset under state law, with or without a judicial decree. See POMS GN 00305.125. If a marriage is void under state law, benefits should be reinstated as of the month
that the benefits originally terminated due to the marriage, i.e., as if the marriage
never happened. See id. A “voidable” marriage, by contrast, is a marriage which is defective and can be adjudged
void, but which is considered valid unless and until declared void by court action.
See POMS GN 00305.130. If the marriage is voidable, then the child’s benefits would be reinstated as of
the month the annulment decree was entered. See id. Thus, the issue here is whether Anthony’s annulled marriage was a “void” marriage
or a “voidable” marriage under the applicable state law.
The District Court of Sanders County, Montana issued an order finding Anthony’s marriage
invalid “based on a lack of capacity to consent as testified to by both parties due
to brain cyst undiagnosed.” Without explanation, the Court found that the marriage
was invalid “retroactive to the date thereof.” Although the District Court held that
the marriage was invalid retroactive to the date of the marriage, this does not necessarily
mean that the Agency must recognize the annulment. Instead, the Agency is only bound
by state court decisions on family law issues where: (1) an issue in the 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. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-27c (adopting Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1973)).
Based on the limited information we have, it appears that the first and third G~ factors are satisfied in this case. However, the second and fourth G~ factors have not been met, as discussed below.
With respect to the first factor, Montana was the appropriate court of jurisdiction
to rule on this issue because Anthony and Leigha were domiciled in Montana at the
time of the marriage. G~, 474 F.2d at 1373. And, the third factor is satisfied because the issue resolved
by the District Court, or whether the marriage was valid, falls within the general
category of domestic relations law. Id.
However, the second G~ factor has not been met because it does not appear that the issues in the case were
genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests. G~, 474 F.2d at 1373. Indeed, the decree of invalidity states that both parties testified
that the marriage was invalid due to a lack of capacity to consent. Thus, there is
no indication that the decree of invalidity was contested. See id. (stating that to be genuinely contested, an issue must be disputed by parties with
opposing interests); see also Winters v. Sec. of HHS, 1989 WL 280323 (S.D. Ohio, Dec. 11, 1989) (unpublished) (holding that a state court
order regarding the validity of a common law marriage between a claimant and a deceased
insured person was not binding on the Agency where the insured person’s parents initially
contested the state proceeding but later withdrew from the proceeding, and the state
court judge heard evidence only from the claimant, whose witnesses were not cross-examined
by a party opposed to the claimant’s position).
We also conclude that the fourth G~ factor was not met because it is not clear that the District Court’s order was consistent
with the law enunciated by the highest court in Montana. Id. Montana law provides that a marriage can be declared invalid if a party lacked the
capacity to consent to the marriage because of mental incapacity or infirmity. Mont.
Code. Ann. § 40-1-402(1)(a); see also In re Marriage of H~, 223 Mont. 85, 86 (Mont. 1 986). “A declaration of invalidity is appropriate only
if the petitioner offers clear and definite evidence that one of the spouses lacked
‘sufficient mental capacity to understand intelligently the marriage contract . .
. and the obligations it imposed on him.’” In re Marriage of H~, 223 Mont. at 87. Montana law further provides that unless the court finds “that
the interests of justice would be served by making the decree not retroactive, it
shall declare the marriage invalid as of the date of the marriage.” Mont. Code. Ann.
§ 40-1-402(5); see also In re Marriage of A~, 185 Mont. 63, 66 (Mont. 1979) (noting that § 40-1-402(5) effectively created a presumption
that a prohibited marriage was void from its outset). Therefore, Montana law gives
the courts discretion to determine the effective date of the decree of invalidity.
See id. However, while the District Court had the discretion to declare Anthony’s marriage
invalid retroactive to the date of the marriage, it is simply not clear that the District
Court’s determination was supported by “clear and definite evidence.” In re Marriage of H~, 223 Mont. at 87.
In this case, in a very brief order, the District Court found that one of the parties
to the marriage lacked the capacity to consent to the marriage due to an undiagnosed
brain cyst. The District Court’s order does not reference any evidence other than
the testimony of the parties. The order does not establish that Anthony showed, by
clear and definite evidence, that he “lacked ‘sufficient mental capacity to understand
intelligently the marriage contract . . . and the obligations it imposed on him.’”
In re Marriage of H~, 223 Mont. at 87. Thus, although the Court had the authority to declare Anthony’s
marriage retroactively void, due to the lack of evidence underpinning the order, we
conclude that it is unclear whether this order is consistent with the law enunciated
by the Montana Supreme Court. G~, 474 F.2d at 1373.
Because the District Court’s order does not satisfy all four of the G~ factors, the Agency is not necessarily bound by the order. See, e.g., W~, 1989 WL 280323. Instead, the District Court’s order should be considered by the
Agency as “one part of a broader inquiry” into the facts and the applicable law. See Applicability of State Law in Determining Marriage Validity, 2 Soc. Sec. Law & Prac. § 21:44 (June 2013).
In this case, we conclude that the Agency should not be bound by the state court order
because Anthony has failed to support his claim that the marriage was void from the
outset. In September 2013, the field office asked Anthony to provide additional information,
including the transcript from the District Court. See POMS GN 00305.135. However, Anthony failed to submit any supporting documentation. And, the District
Court’s order stated only that both parties testified that one of the parties (presumably
Anthony) had an undiagnosed brain cyst. While there is no apparent reason to doubt
the veracity of this testimony, there is also little objective evidence supporting
it. Further, the District Court made no finding that the alleged brain cyst was present
on the date of the marriage, or by April 27, 2010. See, e.g., Geitner v. Townsend, 67 N.C. App. 159 (N.C. Ct. App. 1984) (recognizing that the capacity to marry is determined
as of the date of the marriage). And, a review of Anthony’s electronic file demonstrates
that, in his application for disability insurance benefits, he stated that he was
diagnosed with a brain cyst in September 2010. While the brain cyst may have been
present in April 2010, we have no evidence of that. There is also no “clear and definite”
evidence demonstrating that the brain cyst affected Anthony in April 2010 to the extent
that he “lacked ‘sufficient mental capacity to understand intelligently the marriage
contract . . . and the obligations it imposed . . . .’” In re Marriage of H~, 223 Mont. at 87. For these reasons, we conclude that Anthony has failed to establish
that his marriage was void or legally non-existent from the outset under state law.
See POMS GN 00305.125. However, based on the District Court’s order, and the fact that Anthony was diagnosed
with a brain cyst in September 2010, we conclude that his marriage should be considered
a “voidable” marriage. Thus, we find that Anthony’s marriage was merely voidable,
and Anthony’s benefits should be reinstated as of May 2011, the date the annulment
decree was entered. See POMS GN 00305.130.
Although the Sanders County District court possessed the authority to enter a decree
of invalidity in Anthony’s marriage, based on the limited information provided to
us it is not clear that any objective evidence supports the determination that the
marriage was void from the outset. Therefore, we conclude that Anthony’s marriage
was not void but merely voidable, and that his benefits should be reinstated as of
May 2011, the date the annulment decree was entered.
John Jay Lee
Regional Chief Counsel, Region VIII
Kathryn C. Bostwick
Assistant Regional Counsel