PR 06405.024 Massachusetts
A. PR 84-008 Carl B. T~ ~, Application of Estoppel
DATE: February 9, 1984
DIVORCE -RIGHTS OF PRIOR SPOUSE TERMINATED BY ESTOPPEL TO ASSERT INVALIDITY OF DIVORCE -MASSACHUSETTS
A Mexican divorce between two parties neither of which is domiciled in Mexico would not be recognized as valid by the Courts of Massachusetts. Under Massachusetts law, a person who was a participant in the action or who benefited from the result, e.g., alimony, support payments, etc., and took no action to contest the validity of the divorce would be estopped from later contesting it. Mere failure to contest the validity of the divorce, however, would not be sufficient to cause the doctrine of estoppel to apply. (T~, Carl B., ~ -RAI (Triba), to ARC, 02/09/84.)
Florence T~ and Arline T~ have both filed for widow's benefits on the account of the deceased wage earner, Carl B. T~ . You have requested our opinion concerning the legal status of the parties and their entitlement to benefits.
A review of the claims file reveals the following pertinent facts. Florence T~ married Carl T~ on May 12, 1934 in New Hampshire. Carl T~ secured a Mexican divorce from Florence on March 30, 1955. Both parties were residents of Massachusetts at the time of the divorce. The decree states that Florence was notified of the complaint by summons, but did not appear in the proceedings or answer the complaint. The decree did not provide for any property settlement. Carl T~ subsequently married Arline T~ on November 12, 1955 in Massachusetts. No children were born of this marriage. The wage earner died July 25, 1983 while domiciled in Massachusetts. Arline filed an application for the lump sum death benefit on August 5, 1983, and the lump sum was subsequently paid to her.
Florence T~ filed for widow's benefits on the deceased's account on August 19, 1983, alleging that she had not participated in the Mexican divorce obtained by the wage earner, had not received any money or property as a result of the divorce, and had never remarried after the divorce. In addition, she stated that she had consulted an attorney after receiving a copy of the final decree and was told that the divorce was invalid. The attorney advised her to wait three years and then file for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Florence stated that she never took any further action because she did not have enough money to proceed with the divorce. The district office, having concluded that the Mexican divorce was invalid, issued an award certificate on November 18, 1983 finding that Florence was entitled to benefits as the wage earner's widow. Meanwhile, Arline T~ had also filed an application for widow's benefits on October 6, 1983. A determination on her claim has been postponed pending resolution of the legal status of the parties.
As you are aware, the Mexican divorce obtained by the wage earner would not be recognized as valid by the courts of Massachusetts since neither party to the divorce was actually domiciled in Mexico at the time of the divorce. See, e.g., our opinion re Edward N. S~, October 28, 1983. The issue that must be resolved, therefore, is whether Florence T~ would be estopped from denying the validity of the divorce. If Florence would be estopped, then she could not be found to be the wage earner's widow. She would, however, be entitled to surviving divorced wife's benefits pursuant to POMS §GN 00305.480, and Arline T~ could then be found to be entitled to widow's benefits as the "good faith" wife of the wage earner under §216(h)(1)(B) of the Act. If, on the other hand, Florence T~ would not be estopped from denying the validity of the divorce, then she would be entitled to widow's benefits as the legal widow of the wage earner. In that event, Arline T~ would not be entitled to any benefits.
Our review of the relevant case law reveals that Massachusetts courts, in cases where the doctrine of estoppel has been applied, have required more than the mere passage of time on which to base the estoppel. Thus, the courts have ruled that the spouse attacking the divorce decree as invalid, in order to be held estopped, must have actively participated in obtaining the divorce or must have received valuable consideration in return for acquiescing in the divorce. McCarthy v. McCarthy, 361 Mass. 359, 280 N.E.2d 151 (1972); Dennis v. Dennis, 337 Mass. 1, 147 N.E.2d 828 (1958); see also Poor v. Poor, 381 Mass. 392, 409 N.E.2d 758 (1980).
In a recent opinion we concluded that a claimant for widow's benefits who had participated in obtaining an invalid Mexican divorce by her appearance through counsel would, under Massachusetts law, be estopped from challenging the validity of the divorce. Opinion re Frank E. C~ , January 25, 1984. In this case, however, Florence T~ did not appear in the divorce proceedings or answer the complaint. Furthermore, she did not receive any property or other valuable consideration as a result of the divorce, and she did not remarry in reliance upon the divorce. If the doctrine of estoppel is to be applied at all to the facts of this case, it would therefore have to be based solely on the fact that Florence did not challenge the divorce decree from the time it was issued in 1955 until the wage earner's death in 1983.
We are not aware of any Massachusetts case applying the doctrine of estoppel by delay (laches) to a factual situation like the present one. As stated previously, the courts of Massachusetts have required that estoppel be based on more than the mere passage of time. Consequently, it is our opinion based on current Massachusetts precedents that Florence T~ would not be estopped to deny the validity of the 1955 divorce. 1_/ Florence would therefore be recognized as the wage earner's legal widow and would be entitled to widow's benefits.
1_/ See our opinion re Russell B~, February 18, 1964 (concluding that The first wife of a wage earner who had obtained an invalid Mexican divorce in 1941, had remarried in 1949, and had died in 1959 was the legal widow of the wage earner for purposes of entitlement to benefits).
B. PR 84-005 Frank E. C~, ~-Application of Estoppel
DATE: January 25, 1984
UNMARRIED CONSORT ENTITLED TO INHERIT AS SPOUSE -RIGHTS ARISING FROM ESTOPPEL OF PRIOR SPOUSE TO ASSERT INVALIDITY OF DIVORCE -MASSACHUSETTS
Although a husband appears personally in a Mexican divorce proceeding and the wife is personally represented by an attorney, since both parties were domiciled in Massachusetts at the time of the proceeding, Massachusetts courts would not recognize the validity of the divorce as neither party was domiciled in Mexico. However, as the wife applied for and received divorced mother's benefits and did not take action to contest the subsequent marriage of the husband, the wife is estopped from challenging the validity of the divorce.,? ... (C~, Frank E., ~ -RAI (Triba), to ARC, O1/25/84.)
* Effective May 26, 1983 estoppel to assert the invalidity of a divorce is sufficient to establish the relationship requirement for entitlement to divorced spouse's benefits.
Helena F. C~ filed an application for surviving divorced wife's benefits on July 1, 1983, on the account of the deceased wage earner, Frank E. C~ . You have requested our opinion whether the claimant is entitled to benefits on Frank C~ 's account.
The claims folder reveals that Helena and Frank C~ were married on November 21, 1942. On August 19, 1969, while domiciliaries of Massachusetts, they signed a separation agreement providing for a settlement of their property. The agreement stated that it would not be merged with any subsequent divorce decree and would be forever binding on the parties. Frank C~ thereafter secured a divorce in Chihiahua, Mexico on August 25, 1969. Frank personally appeared in the proceedings and Helena was represented by an attorney. The prior separation agreement was not merged in the divorce decree. Subsequent to the divorce, Frank remarried in February 1970. He died on February 4, 1971 while domiciled in Massachusetts. Helena filed for and received divorced mother's benefits following his death.
As you are aware, the Mexican divorce obtained by the wage earner would not be recognized as valid by the courts of Massachusetts, since neither party to the divorce was actually domiciled in Mexico at the time of the divorce. See, e.g., our opinion re Edward N. S~ October 28, 1983. You therefore ask whether Helena C~ is estopped from denying the validity of the divorce and, if so, whether she can be entitled to surviving divorced wife's benefits even though the divorce itself is not valid.
In this case Helena did apply for and receive divorced mother's benefits subsequent to the Mexican divorce in which she participated by her appearance through counsel. Furthermore, she was aware that Frank C~ had remarried in 1970 but did not take any action to contest that marriage. We believe the courts of Massachusetts would find these facts sufficient to conclude that Helena is now estopped from challenging the validity of the divorce. See Poor v. Poor, 381 Mass. 392, 409 N.E.2d 758 (1980); McCarthy v. McCarthy, 361 Mass. 359, 280 N.E.2d 151 (1972); Dennis v. Dennis, 337 Mass. 1, 147 N.E.2d 828 (1958).
As the claimant would be estopped from contesting the validity of the divorce, she cannot be found to be the wage earner's widow. According to POMS §GN00305.480, however, she can be found entitled to surviving divorced wife's benefits. That section provides in pertinent part as follows:
If the claimant is estopped to assert the invalidity of a divorce from the WE and thus is precluded from being considered the WE's spouse, such a divorce (for Social Security purposes only) will be considered a final divorce and the claimant can be considered the WE's (surviving) divorced spouse if he/she otherwise qualifies for benefits. This is a change of position effective May 26, 1983. Previously it was held that even if the claimant was estopped, no (surviving) divorced spouse's benefits could be paid since no final divorce had been obtained.
Based upon this provision, Helena C~ can be considered the wage earner's surviving divorced spouse as long as she otherwise qualifies for benefits.