TN 6 (06-14)
PR 06310.029 Montana
A. PR 14-096 Request for Legal Opinion (PL 13-32) – Re-entitlement of Child Based on Annulled Marriage in the State of Montana – REPLY
DATE: May 15, 2014
The Claimant and spouse filed for an annulment of their marriage in the District Court of Sanders County, Montana, in 2011. The Court granted an annulment on May 3, 2011, on the grounds of lack of capacity to consent due to an undiagnosed brain cyst. 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 because the District Court’s order does not satisfy all four of the G~ factors. Additionally, in September 2013, the field office asked the claimant to provide additional information, including the transcript from the District Court, however, the claimant failed to submit any supporting documentation to support his claim that the marriage was void from the outset. Therefore, based on the District Court’s order, and the fact that the Claimant was diagnosed with a brain cyst in September 2010, we conclude that his marriage should be considered a “voidable” marriage and benefits should be reinstated as of May 2011, the date the annulment decree was entered.
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
B. PR 79-011 Reinstatement of Benefits Upon Annulment of Montana Law Pertaining to William
DATE: May 7, 1979
The prior memorandum entitled, '"Void or Voidable Marriage Under Montana State Law - William ," RA VIII (B~) to RC, SSA, ARC, SSI, VIII, January 9, 1979 (OC 1524 - Montana), concerning a voidable marriage and rein- statement of social security benefits, is hereby modified pursuant to the rule in Folsom v. Pearsall. (M~ Willlam A., -- ~ - RAVIII (B~) to - 5/7/79)
At the request of the Acting Director, Office of Insurance Pro- grams Instructions, we have reviewed our prior memorandum entitled, "Void or Voidable Marriage Under Montana State Law - William " E-003, RAVIII (B~) to RC, SSA, VIII, January 9, 1979 (0C 1524 - Montana). As a result of this review we have concluded:
1. That our analysis of the only question which was presented, whether or not the marriage was void or voidable is correct; and
2. That our gratuitous statement that Rose M~ was entitled to reinstatement of her benefits back to the date of her marriage is erroneous.
Use of the terms "void" and "voidable" has been eliminated in the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, effective in Montana since 1976. However, the new Montana law distinguishes between "Prohibited marriages" (Montana Rev. Codes Ann. Supp. 1977), § 49-310), and marriages declared to be invalid (Montana ,Rev. Codes Ann. (Supp. 1977), § 48-311). The "prohibited marriage" section contains those marriages which have been traditionally declared void by law. Similarly, the section which empowers courts to enter a decree declaring the invalidity of a marriage delineates those marriages ordinarily declared to be voidable.
As we noted in Memorandum, "Void or Voidable Marriage--Roy " D-15626, RA VIII (L~) to Regional Representative, Western Program Service Center, March 22, 1974 (OD 0400), which analyzed the Colorado Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act, Section 46-1, 1963 Colorado Rev. Stat:
Implicit within the foregoing distinctions appears to be the legislative intention that prohibited marriages are analogous to those which were "void" under the previous legislation, while the other circumstances under which a marriage may be invalidated, such as duress, fraud, physical incapacity, or non-age are analogous to the "voidable" marriages under the earlier legislation since those are regarded as invalid only if a party to the marriage brings a judicial action and then only if the action is commenced within the statutorily prescribed time limits.
Both the Colorado and the Montana Acts are based on the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, 9 UNIFORM LAWS ANNOTATED 456.
In the instant case, the Montana State court invalidated the marriage on the ground of lack of capacity to consent to the marriage due to mental incapacity. We stated in our prior memorandum that a marriage involving a party who is mentally incapacitated is void- able. For the reasons stated above and in the prior memorandum, we reaffirm this interpretation. However, our statement concerning the effect of the retroactive decree invalidating the marriage must yield to the general rule that has evolved from the case of Folsom v. Pearsall, 245 F.2d 562 (9th Cir. 1957). That rule, as stated in SSR 65-19, is as follows:
A. Void Marriages--A marriage which is void does not preclude or terminate entitlement to the specified benefits.
B. Voidable Marriage--A voidable marriage precludes or terminates entitlement to the benefits specified above, making the claimant ineligible beginning with the month in which such marriage occurs. An annul- merit of the marriage ordinarily permits entitlement to benefits, or reinstatement of entitlement to benefits beginning no earlier than the month in which the marriage is annulled. This general rule is based on the rationale of Folsom. v. Pearsall, 245 F.2d 562 (9th Cir. 1957).
In Memorandum, "Folsom v. Pearsall, 1A CCH UIR Fed. Para. 8283 (CA-9 1957)," GC (P~) to AC, July 22, 1957 (OC 1513); a distinction is made, with respect to this rule, between a voidable marriage where the decree is silent as to its effective date or where it renders the marriage null and void ab initio; and a voidable marriage where the decree is made effective prospectively from the date of the decree or from a date after the decree. In the former case, benefits are reinstated prospectively, be- ginning with the month in which the decree was issued; while in the latter case, benefits are not ordinarily reinstated. Our previous memorandum construed the decree in the instant matter, under Montana law, to operate retroactively,. ab initio. See, also, Memorandum, "Effect on Spouse's Entitlement or Re- entitlement to Title II Benefits of Annulment of Remarriage
Under Statute Providing That Marriage Shall be Annulled From Time Court Decrees Its Nullity," D-9092, GC(P~) to SSA, December 17, 1963 (OC 3032).
Our interpretation that the court decree invalidating Rose marriage was retroactive in effect to the date of her marriage was based on an interpretation that the intent of the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act is to mare the decree retroactive, unless otherwise declared. This we erroneously stated, also would eliminate any gap in entitlement to benefits between the date of the marriage and the date of the court decree declaring it invalid. We withdraw the statement in our January 9, 1979 opinion on this point ~d advise application of the rule in Folsom v. Pearsall, explained, supra in the case of annulment of a voidable marriage. Our memorandum of January 9, 1979 is accordingly modified by this memorandum.
Montana Rev. Codes Ann. (Supp. 1977), Title 48, Chapter 3.