The claimant, Irene E~, married the wage earner on July 27, 1931 1_/ in Mississippi.
Although the wage earner's name is Richmond M~, he married Irene using the assumed
name of Richard M~; Irene was aware of this fact. Irene has stated that the wage earner
used the assumed name so that his father could not learn of (and "block") their marriage.
At the time, she and the wage earner apparently were 14 and 18 years old, respectively,
but they gave their ages as 18 and 21. They separated in 1937, reconciled briefly
in 1939, and separated permanently later that year. Apparently, no divorce was ever
secured. Irene married Perry L~ in Forrest City, Arkansas, on September 21, 1941;
that "marriage" has not ended. 2_/ The wage earner married Ann B~ in December 1941;
that "marriage" has not ended. 3_/ The wage earner has lived in California since at
least 1974. The claimant applied for wife's benefits on his earnings record on July
Under Mississippi law, an insured individual's (undivorced) wife, who enters into
a bigamous marriage after separation from the insured, is estopped from denying the
termination of her prior marriage and from attacking the validity of a subsequent
marriage of the insured. She therefore could not qualify as the wage earner's "wife"
for Social Security Act purposes. G.C. Opinion re: Lee C~ , November 30, 1978. In
your June 19 memorandum, you inquired whether California courts would look to and
apply the law of Mississippi (where the marriage in question was performed) to determine
Irene's right to inherit intestate personal property of the wage earner. You also
inquired whether the validity of the marriage would be affected by the falsification
of the wage earner's name and of the wage earner's and the claimant's ages at the
time the marriage was performed.
Because the state where the marriage took place (Mississippi) is within Region IV,
we requested that the Atlanta Regional Attorney provide a legal opinion on these issues.
The Regional Commissioner's Office in Atlanta, responded in a memorandum dated July
7, 1981. That office stated (with the concurrence of an Assistant Regional Attorney)
that a valid common law marriage evolved in this case, even if the ceremonial marriage
was invalid. We find no reason to disagree with that conclusion. Therefore, the facts
that the wage earner falsified his name, the wage earner and the claimant lied about
their ages, and they were underage when the marriage ceremony was performed, would
not preclude a finding that a valid marriage existed between them. The Regional Commissioner
concluded that if the courts of California "look to the laws of Mississippi in determining
the validity of the first marriage," then the Mississippi principle of estoppel would
apply and the claimant would not be entitled to benefits as the legal spouse of the
wage earner. You resubmitted this case to us on July 15, 1981, asking whether a California
court would determine the claimant's inheritance rights on the basis of Mississippi's
domestic relations law (including the estoppel principle, as explained in the Cole opinion, cited above).
Section 216(h) (1) (A) of the Social Security Act states that for purposes of entitlement
to benefits, an applicant is the "wife" of an insured individual if the courts of
the state in which the individual was domiciled at the time the application was filed
would find that the applicant and the insured individual were then validly married.
42 U.S.C. §416(h) (1) (A). You are correct in concluding that California law would
apply in this case, because the wage earner was domiciled in California when the claimant
filed for wife's benefits.
We believe that the penultimate paragraph of the letter from the Regional Commissioner
in Atlanta erroneously equates application of the principle of estoppel with the validity
of the marriage in question.4_/ The principle of estoppel does not invalidate a marriage;
rather, it is a procedural bar which impacts only on certain rights of the spouses
deriving from the marital relationship. See e.g., G.C. opinion re: Mae P. C~, D-15516, November 29, 1973. The principle of estoppel
as applied in Mississippi does not legally invalidate the first marriages where there
have been subsequent bigamous marriages .by one or both of the parties to the first
A marriage valid where contracted would be considered valid in California. See California Civil Code section 4104. Thus, California would' recognize the claimant's
marriage to the wage earner, validly entered into in Mississippi. It does not follow,
however, that Mississippi law will govern the question of the property rights of the
spouses in that marriage where one or both of the parties take up residence in another
state. Where a (wage-earner) spouse had been domiciled in California for several years
before his/her death, the courts of California would apply the law of California (not
'the law of the state where the marriage began) in determining whether a person claiming
to be his/her "widow" would because of her/his. subsequent bigamous marriage to another
person, be estopped from .asserting that she/he had a right to inherit (part of) the
decedent's intestate personal property as his/her surviving spouse. See Reich v. Purcell, 67 Cal. 2d 551, 432 F..2d 727, 63 Cal. Rptr. 31 (1967) 6_/; Hurtado v.. Superior Court, of 1t Cal. 3d 574, 522 P.2d 666, 114 Cal. Rptr. 106 (1974); see also Strassberg v. New England Mutual Life Ins. Co., 575 F.2d 1262 (9th Cir. 1978). in the present case, California (not Mississippi)
law would govern the claimant's right to inherit from the wage earner and the effect
of estoppel on their marriage.
In our opinion re: Ellis H. A~, D-3730, April 9, 1958, we concluded that California
would not apply the estoppel doctrine where no legal proceedings to terminate the
prior marriage had been initiated. In the present case, apparently no divorce action
has been filed by either party to the marriage in question. 7_/ Assuming this to be
true, we conclude that California courts would not apply estoppel and hence would
find that the claimant could inherit intestate personal property as the legal widow
of Richmond M~. She would thus qualify as his "wife" under section 216(h) (1) (A)
of the Act.
1_/ On the claimant's statement dated 7/6/79, she indicated that the marriage occurred
on August 27, 1931.
2_/ Documents in the claims file indicate that Perry L~ had at least one prior undissolved
marriage, to Viola S~ (now Viola P~), in 1935; they separated in 1937. His first wife,
Annie P~ (married August 14, 1930), may have died before he married Viola although
this is unclear from the claims file. Annie definitely had died by the time Perry
3_/ According to Irene, the wage earner had remarried at least twice before she married
Perry L~ in September 1941. Thus, he may have other (undissolved) "marriages" not
documented in the claims file.
4_/ I spoke with Jim S~ in the Atlanta Regional Attorney's office on this point. He
agreed that the statement to the contrary in the Regional Commissioner's July 7, 1981
memorandum reflected a misunderstanding of the law and should be ignored.
5_/ This, of course, does not necessarily mean that the claimant meets the valid marriage
test of section 216(h) (1) (A) of the Act. See the Cole opinion, cited above, and discussion below.
6_/ In Reich, the California Supreme Court adopted a new method of determining the proper choice
of law in conflict of laws cases: the so-called "governmental interests" test. In
making this change the Court was influenced by articles by Professor Robert Leflar, including "Choice-Influencing Considerations in Conflicts Law," 41 N.Y.U.L. Rev.
267 (1966). Professor Leflar's articles also influenced the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt the same method. See G.C. opinion re: "Application of Mississippi Estoppel Law in Wisconsin," September
11, 1981, where the Regional Attorney in Region VII reached the same conclusion as
we do herein when faced with the issue of application of this particular (unique)
Mississippi law on estoppel. We concur in the analysis of the "choice-influencing
considerations" contained in the Region VII opinion and, as discussed above, conclude
that the California courts would apply California law, after making a similar analysis.
7_/ In view of California law on this issue, it is crucial that this fact be verified.