Your memorandum to the Office of General Counsel dated January 25, 1980, requested
our opinion whether or not a claimant would be entitled to wife's insurance benefits
where she and the wage earner both entered into bigamous relationships subsequent
to their initial marriage and have since resumed living together.
The wage earner and the claimant entered into a ceremonial marriage in Charleston,
Mississippi on April 10, 1931. No defect was alleged in this marriage. Subsequently,
the wage earner and the claimant separated but never divorced. The wage earner then
entered into a marriage with two other individuals both resulting in separation but
no divorces. The claimant also entered into a marriage until her second purported
spouse died in 1963. In 1965, the wage earner and the claimant resumed cohabitation
as husband and wife, living together in Mississippi, Illinois and Tennessee where
they lived at the time of the filing of the application in question.
The Social Security Act requires that Tennessee law be examined to determine if the
applicant and the wage earner are husband and wife. Section 216(h)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C.
§416(h)(1)(A). Tennessee courts would apply the law of Tennessee initially to determine
whether or not the wage earner and the claimant are married. Penngard v. State, 10 S.W. 305 (S.Ct. Tenn. 1889). The claimant and the wage earner have stated that
they were never divorced from each other. Therefore, under Tennessee. law the subsequent
marriages entered into by both the wage earner and the claimant are bigamous marriages
and are void ab initio. ~n~ ~e v. Payne, 219 S.W. 4 (S.Ct. Tenn. 1920); Knight v. t, 458 S.W.2d 803 (Ct. of App. Tenn. 1970). Furthermore, in Tennessee there is a very
strong presumption that the current marriage or last is the valid marriage Payne v. Payne, supra; (C~, Quintan W.,~ — RA IV (Atlanta) to ARC-RSI, Atlanta, 10/9/79). This presumption
supports a finding that this marriage of the claimant and wage earner is valid. The
uncontradicted evidence is that the wage earner's intervening marriages were void
You have asked whether the Tennessee doctrine of estoppel would prevent the claimant
or wage earner from asserting the invalidity of their intervening bigamous marriages.
The Tennessee doctrine of estoppel would not have that effect in this case. The estoppel
doctrine was designed to protect the innocent wife in a void marriage. The doctrine
would estop the husband from denying a marriage relationship at least as far as his
liabilities for his wife's necessities. Hale v. State, 164 S.W.2d 822 (S.Ct. Tenn. 1942); Crawford v. Crawford, 77 S.W.2d 389 (S.Ct. Tenn. 1955). While there is no authority directly on point
it is doubtful the Tennessee courts would apply the equitable principle of estoppel
to deny a valid marriage between the wage earner and the claimant. The wage earner
and claimant have reasserted their marriage relationship since 1965. Furthermore,
no other person is asserting she is the wife of the wage earner, so no innocent third
party would be adversely affected by recognizing this marriage as valid.
The claimant is not barred from receiving wife's benefits on a wage earner's account
merely because she and the wage earner had, prior to 1965, entered into bigamous relationships
which now appear to have been terminated. If you have any further questions on this,
please do not hesitate to contact me.