You asked what effect a delayed annulment, issued after an individual's death, would
have on an individual's entitlement to widow's insurance benefits.
Sharon R. B~ applied for widow's insurance benefits in February 2003. She married
the number holder, Karl J. B~ on April 23, 1979. She was estranged from Mr. B~ at
the time of his death on May 12, 1990. At the time of the application for benefits,
the Claims Representative (CR) sent a request to the Oregon Bureau of Vital Statistics
to determine if Mr. and Ms. B~ had ever been divorced. The search came back indicating
no records of divorce. As a result, the CR determined Ms. B~ was eligible for widow's
Subsequent to the granting of benefits, the CR received a document from the Oregon
Bureau of Vital Statistics indicating that Mr. and Ms. B~'s marriage had been annulled
effective February 15, 1991. The effective date was nine months after Mr. B~'s death.
The CR immediately contacted Ms. B~ regarding this development; however, Ms. B~ claimed
to have no knowledge regarding the annulment proceedings.
We obtained a copy of the official court file, which revealed that Mr. B~ filed a
Petition for Annulment of Marriage on April 10, 1990, a month before his death. He
claimed that his marriage to Ms. B~ was obtained by fraud because Ms. B~ was married
to Joe E. H~ at the time of their marriage. A Certificate of Service included within
the court file indicated that Ms. B~ was personally served with the Petition for Annulment
of Marriage on April 11, 1990. On May 10, 1990, Ms. B~'s attorney filed a one-sentence
response to the petition denying that the marriage was obtained by fraud. Therefore,
despite Ms. B~'s claim to the CR that she had no knowledge regarding the annulment
proceedings, she in fact had knowledge and hired an attorney to represent her in the
After Mr. B~'s death on May 12, 1990, his attorney filed a Motion to Substitute Parties
in the Annulment proceeding. On June 20, 1990, the court ordered that Patti J. H~,
Personal Representative for the Estate of Mr. B~, be allowed to substitute for Mr.
B~ as petitioner and to pursue the annulment proceedings previously filed on behalf
of the Estate of Mr. B~.
On May 21, 1990, the court ordered that the case be transferred to arbitration. On
October 3, 1990, the Arbitrator ruled that Ms. B~'s prior marriage to Mr. H~ was never
resolved before her subsequent marriage to Mr. B~. The Arbitrator then noted that,
after Ms. B~ obtained a dissolution of marriage to Mr. H~, she and Mr. B~ never remarried.
He then concluded the marriage between Ms. B~ and Mr. B~ was void. On January 15,
1991, a judge from the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon issued a Decree of Annulment
of Marriage, terminating the marriage. Ms. B~ did not appeal the Decree of Annulment.
Ms. B~ is entitled to widow's insurance benefits if she is Mr. B~'s widow. 42 U.S.C.
§ 416(h)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a). The relationship requirement is met if Mr.
B~ and Ms. B~ were validly married under state law at time of the Mr. B~'s death.
20 C.F.R. § 404.345. We look to the law of the State where Mr. B~ had his permanent
home when he died. Id. Mr. B~ died in the State of Oregon. In Oregon, a marriage may be declared "absolutely
void" from the beginning when either party to the marriage had a wife or husband living
at the time of such marriage. OR. REV. STAT. (O.R.S.) §§ 106.020, 107.005.
Here, an Annulment Decree was issued based on the Arbitrator's finding that Ms. B~'s
prior marriage to Mr. H~ was not resolved prior to her marriage to Mr. B~. As a result,
the subsequent marriage between Mr. B~ and Ms. B~ was void. "A void marriage is a
marriage which is legally nonexistent from the beginning under State law, without
a judicial decree. The parties to a void marriage are considered never to have been
husband and wife." Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00305.125; see also O.R.S. § 107.005. Since Mr. and Ms. B~ were not validly married from the beginning
under Oregon law, Ms. B~ is not Mr. B~'s widow and thus is not entitled to widow's
insurance benefits on Mr. B~'s account.
Regional Chief Counsel
Franco L. B~
Assistant Regional Counsel