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
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).