PR 06410.047 Tennessee
A. PR 80-005 Bennie M~ SS#~ Validity of Marriage
DATE: July 8, 1980
MARRIAGE - Presumption of Validity of Second Marriage — State Law
Claimant is not estopped for asserting she is the wage earner's wife merely because they had each entered into bigamous relationships which had terminated over 10 years ago.
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 from inception.
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.