TN 3 (01-13)

PR 06310.034 New Mexico

A. PR 13-016 New Mexico Law: Legal Effect of Underage Marriage Annulment (NH Marie: SSN ~ REPLY

DATE: November 16, 2012

1. SYLLABUS

We look to the laws of New Mexico, the State in which the number holder (NH) was domiciled at the time of her death, to determine the effect of an annulment decree on the status of the underage marriage between the NH and the claimant. No evidence shows that the NH’s parent or guardian consented to her marriage at age 16 and, under New Mexico law, the marriage was void when contracted in November 1977. In addition, in February 1988, the Court entered an Annulment Decree that annulled the NH’s underage marriage. Under New Mexico law, an annulment makes a marriage void (i.e., it never legally existed); therefore, the claimant is not entitled to widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse on the NH’s record. 

2. OPINION

QUESTION PRESENTED

You have asked us to determine the marital status of a marriage, after considering the terms of a marriage annulment decree. Specifically, you have asked whether the marriage annulment decree renders the marriage voidable. If so, you have asked us to determine the effective date of the marriage annulment, which would determine whether the claimant is entitled to widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse under the number holder’s record.

ANSWER

We conclude that the marriage annulment decree established that the underage marriage between Raymond and the number holder never existed in law. Accordingly, the claimant is not entitled to widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse under the number holder’s record.

BACKGROUND

Marie (number holder) birth certificate shows that she was born on January. On April , when the number holder was sixteen years old, the number holder and the claimant, Raymond, filed a marriage license application in County of Bernalillo, New Mexico. The marriage license incorrectly listed the number holder’s date of birth as January, and the number holder’s parent or guardian did not sign the marriage license provision that would serve to provide consent to the underage marriage. The number holder and Raymond married on November 7, 1977, in County of Bernalillo, New Mexico (1977 marriage), at which time the number holder was still sixteen years old. On May 15, 1987, the number holder and Ismael filed a marriage license application in County of Bernalillo, New Mexico. Their marriage license listed the number holder’s date of birth as January. The number holder and Ismael married on May 23, 1987, in Bernalillo County, New Mexico (1987 marriage).

On February 12, 1988, the number holder filed a Petition for Annulment of Marriage, or in the Alternative, Dissolution of Marriage (Annulment Petition) in the Second Judicial District Court, County of Bernalillo, New Mexico (Court). In the Annulment Petition, under sworn affidavit, the number holder affirmed, in pertinent part, the following:

  • Petitioner (number holder) and Respondent (Raymond) married on November 7, 1977.

  • At the time of marriage, number holder was a minor child of 16 years of age.

  • The parties secured a marriage license on April 7, 1977, in violation of Section 40-1-10, NMSA 1978, which proscribed the issuance of any license to any person under the age of majority without the consent of the underage person’s parents.

  • Number holder did not live with her parents at the time of her marriage, and the marriage was contracted without the consent of her parents in violation of Section 40-1-5, NMSA 1978.

  • At the time of the marriage, number holder was a minor and, therefore, incapable of entering into the civil contract as prescribed by Section 40-1-1, NMSA 1978.

  • The parties lived together until 1980, at which time they decided that their marriage was not valid because of the number holder’s age at the time she entered into the marriage and because the county clerk had sent them a letter questioning the validity of the marriage. By mutual agreement, the parties went their separate directions and have not lived together as husband and wife since that time.

On February 19, 1988, the Court granted the number holder a Final Decree of Annulment of Marriage (Annulment Decree). The Court considered pleadings and heard testimony from the number holder and Raymond, and found, in pertinent part, as follows:

  • The Court has jurisdiction over the parties herein and the subject matter of this action, and the Petitioner is entitled to a decree of annulment of marriage.

  • The allegations in the Annulment Petition are true and correct.

  • Petitioner entered into a marriage on May 23, 1987, with Ismael in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.

  • Court found that in a chain of marriages a legal presumption exists that the one contracted later in time is presumed valid.

  • The Court ratified as valid from its inception the subsequent marriage Petitioner entered into with Ismael.

  • Therefore, the Court granted number holder an annulment of her 1977 marriage to Raymond and recognized the number holder’s 1987 marriage to Ismael as valid.

On the same date, the district judge, the number holder, and Raymond signed the Annulment Decree. The number holder and Raymond also signed a Parenting Plan, providing for joint custody, visitation, and child support for two children born to the number holder and Raymond.

The number holder died August 15, 2010, while domiciled in New Mexico. In March 2011, Raymond filed for Title II disability benefits on his own record and filed for possible widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse on the number holder’s record. In a letter dated March 2, 2012, Raymond claimed that there were continuous lies throughout the number holder’s paper work, presumptively referring to the information the number holder provided in the marriage license and the Annulment Petition. In his letter, Raymond stated that he believed the January 1958, date of birth listed for the number holder on the 1977 marriage license was her correct birth date. Raymond also stated that he lived with the number holder for eleven years, not less than three years as the number holder claimed in her annulment Petition. Raymond claimed that he signed the Annulment Decree and the Parenting Plan without reading the papers.

ANALYSIS

To qualify for widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse under the Social Security Act (Act), a claimant must meet the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.336.1 42 U.S.C. § 402(f). The regulations provide, in pertinent part, that a man qualifies for widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced husband if he (1) was validly married to the deceased insured individual under state law, as described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.345, or was “deemed” to have been validly married, as described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.346; and (2) he divorced the deceased insured individual, but only if he had been married to the individual for a period of ten years immediately before the divorce became effective. 42 U.S.C. § 416(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.336(a); POMS RS 00207.001(A)(2), 2002 WL 1878025. The regulations provide that a claimant can meet the marriage relationship requirement if under state law a claimant would be able to inherit the deceased insured individual’s personal property, if the insured were to die without leaving a will. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. To determine whether Raymond is entitled to widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse under the number holder’s record, the agency looks to the laws of the state where the number holder had her permanent home when she died, which in this case is New Mexico. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345.

We first look at whether the agency can accept the Annulment Decree as evidence that the number holder was not validly married to Raymond. Agency policy states that a state trial court decision does not bind the Commissioner when the agency is not a party. See SSR 83-37C, 1983 WL 31272 (adopting Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1973)). However, the Commissioner must still recognize a state court adjudication where all of the following prerequisites (prongs) are found: (1) a state court of competent jurisdiction has determined an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits; (2) parties with opposing interests genuinely contested the issue before the state court; (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. Id.

Here, in regard to the first prong, the Court noted that it had jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter of the action, and the Annulment Decree resolved an issue in this case, i.e., the marital status of the number holder to Raymond. See Gray, 474 F.2d at 1373 (first prerequisite). In regard to the second prong, the Annulment Decree states that both parties provided testimony, which shows that parties with opposing interests genuinely contested the issues before the Court. See id. (second prerequisite). In regard to the third prong, the Court entered the Annulment Decree under the New Mexico Domestic Affairs statutes, showing that the annulment issue fell within the general category of domestic relations law. See id. (third prerequisite); see also N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9 (Domestic Affairs; Marriage in General; Ismael consistent with the law enunciated by New Mexico’s highest court. See Gray, 474 F.2d at 1373 (fourth prerequisite). The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that in “dual marriage situations, in which the validity of the second marriage is attacked on the basis of the first [marriage] being a subsisting relationship at the time the second [marriage] was contracted, the presumption of validity attaches to the second marriage.” Panzer v. Panzer, 528 P.2d 888, 891 (N.M. 1974). In the Annulment Decree, consistent with Panzer, the Court annulled the number holder’s 1977 marriage to Raymond; found that in a chain of marriages a legal presumption exists that the one contracted later in time is presumed valid; and ratified the number holder’s 1987 marriage to Ismael. In sum, the Annulment Decree meets all the Gray prongs. See Gray, 474 F.2d at 1373; SSR 83-37C. Thus, we conclude that the agency can accept the Annulment Decree as evidence that the number holder was not validly married to Raymond under New Mexico law.

We next look at whether Raymond was validly married to the number holder under New Mexico law. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.345 (requirement to establish marriage relationship under state law). In New Mexico, no person under the age of majority2 can marry, unless she obtains the consent of her parent or guardian. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-5. New Mexico law specifically provides for the annulment of prohibited marriages, declaring void marriages between “infants3 under the prohibited ages . . . except by a decree of the district court upon proper proceedings being had therein.” N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9. A New Mexico court specifically noted that “the only type of marriages our Legislature has expressly declared to be void are . . . marriages between or with infants under the age of majority.” Rivera v. Rivera, 2010-NMCA-106, 243 P.3d 1148, 1152 (N.M. Ct. App. 2010). Here, the number holder’s birth certificate shows that the number holder was sixteen years old when she married Raymond on November 7, 1977. 4 There is no evidence that the number holder’s parent or guardian consented to the marriage. Thus, under New Mexico law, the number holder’s marriage to Raymond was void when contracted in November 1977. Furthermore, in February 1988, the Court entered an Annulment Decree annulling the number holder’s underage marriage to Raymond. In New Mexico, the legal effect of annulment is to render a marriage void (not voidable). N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9. Therefore, Raymond was not legally married to the number holder under New Mexico law.

We next look at whether Raymond was “deemed” to be validly married to the number holder under a New Mexico statute providing that a marriage is “deemed” legal and binding when the parties live together until they arrive at the age under which marriage is permitted. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9.5 Here, the Annulment Petition states that the number holder stopped living with Raymond in 1980, 6 when she was nineteen years of age, after the county clerk sent them a letter questioning the validity of their marriage. The Court entered an Annulment Decree on February 19, 1988, annulling the marriage between the number holder and Raymond, which established that their marital status never existed in law. 7 Black’s Law Dictionary 89 (7th ed. 1999). Thus, under Section 40-1-9, New Mexico would not deem Raymond to have been validly married to the number holder.

As previously noted, agency regulations provide that a claimant can also establish the marriage relationship requirement if under state law, the claimant would be able to inherit the insured’s personal property, if the insured were to die without leaving a will.8 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Under New Mexico law, a decedent’s estate not effectively disposed of by will passes by intestate succession to the decedent’s heirs. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-2-101. New Mexico law defines “heirs” as “persons, including the surviving spouse and the state, who are entitled under the statues of intestate succession to the property of a decedent.” N.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-1-201(23). New Mexico law specifically provides that an individual whose marriage to the decedent has been annulled is not a surviving spouse. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-2-802(A). Here, the Court annulled (not terminated under a divorce decree) the number holder’s marriage to Raymond. Therefore, Raymond would not be able to inherit the number holder’s property under New Mexico law, and Raymond cannot establish the marriage relationship to the number holder under 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. 9 We next look at whether Raymond was deemed to have been validly married to the number holder under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.346 (marriage relationship based upon a deemed valid marriage). 10 The regulations provide that if a claimant’s relationship as the number holder’s husband or widower cannot be established under state law, the claimant may be eligible for benefits based upon a deemed valid marriage, as 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a) describes. A claimant is deemed to be the husband or widower of the number holder if, in good faith, the claimant went through a marriage ceremony with the number holder that would have resulted in a valid marriage, except for a legal impediment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). The regulations define “legal impediment” as including only (emphasis added) an impediment which results because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony or because there was a defect in the procedure followed in connection with the intended marriage. Id. 11 “Good faith” means that at the time of the ceremony a party did not know that a legal impediment existed, or if the party did know, the party thought that it would not prevent a valid marriage. Id.

The number holder and Raymond obtained a marriage license on April 7, 1977, which incorrectly showed the number holder’s date of birth as January. Based on the number holder’s date of birth in the marriage license, the number holder would have been of age of majority and legally free to marry at the time of application. Notably, the number holder and Raymond followed the proper procedure to obtain a marriage license, false information notwithstanding. 12 However, the legal impediment in this case was a prohibited underage marriage, not an impediment which resulted because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony or an impediment because there was a defect in the procedure followed in connection with the intended marriage. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a) (requirements to establish a deemed marriage). Thus, Raymond was not deemed to have been validly married to the number holder under 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a).

We finally look at whether Raymond was validly married to the number holder for a period of ten years. 20 C.F.R. § 404.336(a)(2). The regulations provide that a person is entitled to widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced husband only if he had been married to the individual for a period of ten years immediately before the divorce became effective. 42 U.S.C. § 416(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.336(a)(2); POMS RS 00207.001(A)(2), 2002 WL 1878025. As previously noted, an annulment 13 establishes that marital status never existed in law. Black’s Law Dictionary 89 (7th ed. 1999); see also Todd v. Tierney, 27 P.2d 991, 995 (N.M. 1933) (noting that “Webster defines “annul” as meaning “to reduce to nothing; to obliterate” and “to make void or of no effect; to nullify; to abolish; to do away with”).

The evidence shows that in February 1988, the Court granted an annulment (not a dissolution) of the number holder’s 1977 marriage to Raymond based on evidence that showed that the number holder was underage, sixteen years old, at the time of her marriage to Raymond; the marriage was contracted without the consent of the number holder’s parent or guardian in violation of New Mexico law; and the number holder and Raymond stopped living together in 1980 after finding that their marriage was not valid. The Court annulled the 1977 marriage between the number holder and Raymond and recognized as valid the number holder’s 1987 marriage to Ismael. Therefore, the Annulment Decree establishes that because the marital relationship between the number holder and Raymond never existed in law, he was not married to her for a period of ten years, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.336(a)(2), and Raymond does not qualify for widower’s benefits as her surviving divorced spouse under the Act.

CONCLUSION

Raymond is not entitled to widower’s benefits on the number holder’s account as divorced-spouse because he was not validly married, was not deemed to have been validly married to the number holder, and is not entitled to inherit the number holder’s personal property under New Mexico law. Raymond was also not deemed to have been validly married to the number holder under the Act. Furthermore, Raymond cannot show that he was married to the number holder for the requisite ten years. Therefore, Raymond is not entitled to widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse under the number holder’s record. 14

Michael McGaughran

Regional Chief Counsel

By: ______________________

Ruben Montemayor

Assistant Regional Counsel


Footnotes:

[1]

In your request for legal advice, you note that the Annulment Decree is silent regarding alimony. Notably, an alimony provision is relevant only in cases involving an annulment of a voidable marriage when the claimant seeks entitlement or re-entitlement to parent’s insurance benefits or re-entitlement to child’s insurance benefits, not when the claimant seeks entitlement to widower’s benefits. Social Security Ruling (SSR) 84-1, 1984 WL 49790. Therefore, the absence of an alimony provision in the Annulment Decree is not an issue in this case because the number holder filed for widower’s benefits as a surviving divorced spouse, not for parent’s insurance benefits or child’s insurance benefits.

[2]

Any person who has reached her eighteenth birthday shall be considered to have reached her majority. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 28-6-1(A). See Mason v. Mason, 507 P.2d 781, 783 (N.M. 1973) (noting that New Mexico “Laws of 1971” changed age of majority to 18 years of age, effective June 18, 1971).

[3]

Case law defines the term infant as a child under the age of eighteen. See Weiland v. Vigil, 560 P.2d. 939, 943 (N.M. Ct. App. 1977) (“The terms ‘children’ and ‘infant’ are synonymous. Both refer to a child under the age of 21). However, today, children 18 years of age are considered to be adults”).

under the prohibited ages . . . except by a decree of the district court upon proper proceedings being had therein.” N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9. A New Mexico court specifically noted that “the only type of marriages our Legislature has expressly declared to be void are . . . marriages between or with infants under the age of majority.” Rivera v. Rivera, 2010-NMCA-106, 243 P.3d 1148, 1152 (N.M. Ct. App. 2010). Here, the number holder’s birth certificate shows that the number holder was sixteen years old when she married Raymond on November 7, 1977.

[4]

We will address the age misrepresentation in the marriage license under the 20 C.F.R. § 404.346 “deemed” marriage analysis.

[5]

We will discuss “deemed” marriage under New Mexico law separately from “deemed” marriage under the Act because they require different criteria. In New Mexico, parties are “deemed” validly married if the parties live together until they arrive at the age of majority, except when a district court declares the marriage void. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9 (prohibited marriages; annulment). Under the Act, a claimant is deemed to be the husband or widower of the number holder if, in good faith, the claimant went through a marriage ceremony with the number holder that would have resulted in a valid marriage, except for a legal impediment that results because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony or because there was a defect in the procedure followed in connection with the intended marriage. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a).

[6]

Although Raymond alleged that he and the number holder lived together for eleven years, the number holder affirmed under oath in her Annulment Petition that they lived together until 1980. Raymond had an opportunity to contest the number holder’s affirmation and did not do so. The Court found the number holder’s affirmation to be true and correct. Moreover, for Raymond and the number holder to have lived together for eleven years, as he alleges, this would mean that the number holder and Raymond continued to live together even after the number holder married Ismael in 1987.

[7]

In New Mexico, parties are “deemed” validly married if the parties live together until they arrive at the age of majority, except when a district court declares the marriage void, as in this case. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-1-9 (prohibited marriages; annulment).

[8]

Agency policy provides that under the laws of some states, a party to a void marriage may acquire inheritance rights as a spouse in a putative marriage. POMS GN 00305.085, 2002 WL 1877393. Putative marriage is a marriage in which the husband and wife believe in good faith that they are married, but for some technical reason are not formally married (as when the ceremonial official was not authorized to perform a marriage). Black’s Law Dictionary 987 (7th ed. 1999). Here, New Mexico law specifically provides that an individual whose marriage to the decedent has been annulled is not a surviving spouse and is not entitled to inherit the decedent’s personal property. N.M. Stat. Ann. §§ 45-2-101, 45-2-802(A).

[9]

The A person who maintained a putative marriage with the number holder under applicable state law and who was then divorced from the number holder can be entitled to benefits as the number holder‘s divorced spouse or surviving divorced spouse if all the other necessary requirements are met, e.g., married at least 10 years. POMS GN 00305.085, 2002 WL 1877393. In order to qualify as a putative (surviving) divorced spouse, the good faith belief must have lasted until a final divorce (divorce a vinculo matrimonii) was obtained. Id. Divorced putative spouse‘s benefits cannot be paid based on an annulment or separation. Id. Here, the number holder and Raymond lived together until 1980, at which time they decided their marriage was not valid, which shows that Raymond did not have a good faith belief that he was married to the number holder until the annulment date. Additionally, the Court annulled the number holder’s marriage to Raymond, not terminated the marriage under a divorce decree. New Mexico does not consider Raymond a surviving spouse because the Court annulled Raymond putative marriage to the number holder. Thus, Raymond does not meet the criteria as a putative spouse under agency policy because he did not have a good faith belief that he was married to the number holder at the time of divorce, and the Court annulled (not terminated under a divorce decree) the number holder’s marriage to Raymond.

[10]

See footnote 5.

[11]

The requirements to establish a putative marriage under agency policy are different that the requirements to establish a deemed marriage under the regulations. The regulations specifically provide that the legal impediment to the “deemed” marriage be only due to an impediment which results because a previous marriage had not ended at the time of the ceremony. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.346(a). This is not a requirement under the agency’s putative marriage policy. See POMS GN 00305.085, 2002 WL 1877393 (putative marriage); see also footnote 9 (putative marriage analysis in this case).

[12]

In a letter to the Social Security Administration dated March 2, 2012, Raymond alleged that when he married the number holder, the marriage license listed her date of birth as January , which he believed to be true.

[13]

Agency policy is that a decree of annulment may “constitute a judicial declaration that a purported marriage was always void, i.e., a nullity that never existed, or terminates a voidable marriage.” SSA POMS GN 00305.120, 2001 WL 1926849. Agency policy also states that “a void marriage is a marriage which is legally nonexistent from the beginning under state law . . . and the parties to a void marriage are considered never to have been husband and wife.” SSA POMS GN 00305.125, 2001 WL 1926850.

[14]

Agency policy states that if the “domiciliary State’s presumption is in favor of the latest marriage, benefits may not be payable to the former spouse claimant.” SSA POMS GN 00305.035, 2006 WL 4513796.


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