PR 06415.004 Arizona
A. PR 88-005 Leo G. S~, Estoppel - Arizona
DATE: March 10, 1988
DIVORCE -- RIGHTS OF PRIOR SPOUSE TERMINATED BY ESTOPPEL TO ASSERT INVALIDITY OF DIVORCE -- ARIZONA
Arizona -- Unmarried Putative Spouse Status
Under Arizona law, a spouse who has obtained a patently invalid divorce remains legally married to that spouse and moreover, acquires no marital property rights from a subsequent "spouse". Claimant, here, is estopped from questioning the efficacy of the interlocutory divorce decree and cannot be considered the wage earner's legal widow or unmarried putative widow. (S~, Leo G., ~ -- RAIX (S~), to RC, 03/10/88.)
Erna M. S~ has applied for social security widow's benefits on the account of Leo G. S~. Erna M. and Leo were married in Nevada on August 5, 1968. Mr. S~ previously had married Lucy M~ and you have concluded that this marriage was never ended by an alleged Mexican divorce. Erna M. had been married three times before. Her first marriage was ended by her husband's death. The second marriage was terminated by divorce. With respect to the third marriage, California court records indicate that an interlocutory decree was issued to Erna M. and Vernon E. S~ on November 25, 1966, but that neither party subsequently obtained a final decree. You asked "whether Erna M. is estopped to deny the finality of her interlocutory divorce, so that she might be considered the unmarried putative widow of S~ under Arizona law." l_/
To determine the effect of the interlocutory divorce decree, the Arizona courts would look to the laws of California, the state in which it was rendered. See 24 Am. Jut. 2d, "Divorce and Separation" §§ 1101-1103; see also Depper v. Depper, 9 Ariz.App. 245, 451 P.2d 325 (1969) (valid foreign decree entered in divorce action entitled to full faith and credit). As you recognize, under applicable California law a marriage is not terminated by divorce until the entry of a final decree. GC opinion re Albert E. ~, June 25, 1987. It follows that Erna M. remains legally married to Mr. S~ and her attempted marriage to Mr. S~ is void. 2_/
Since Erna M. married Mr. S~ in reliance upon the interlocutory decree, she is estopped from questioning the efficacy of that decree to terminate her prior marriage. See, e.g., GC opinion re Jack M~ , January 14, 1987. This does not mean, however, that she is to be considered Mr. S~ wife. On the contrary, under Arizona law a spouse who has obtained a patently invalid divorce remains legally married to that spouse and, moreover, acquires no marital property rights from a subsequent "spouse." Accordingly, Erna M. does not meet the requirements of section 216(h) (1) (A) in that neither is she Mr. S~ legal widow, nor is she entitled to spousal inheritance rights from his estate.
We frequently have advised that for social security benefit purposes, it would be inequitable to place a claimant in a position where, as a result of the estoppel doctrine, she cannot qualify for benefits on the account of her legal husband or as the wife of the subsequent putative spouse. See GC opinion re Albert E.~, cited above. This is not the situation here, however, since Erna M. can readily clarify her legal status, clearing the way for entitlement on the account of her legal husband, Mr. S~. 3_/ Despite the lapse of more than twenty years, she may still petition for entry of a final judgment dissolving her marriage to Mr. S~. Cal. Civil Code § 4514. 4_/ Once this judgment is entered, she may satisfy the requirements for purposes of entitlement to divorced wife's benefits on Mr. S~ account. 5_/ Alternatively, she can do nothing, remaining legally married to Mr. S~ but equitably barred from denying the efficacy of the interlocutory decree. If she elects this course, she will not be entitled to benefits on either account.
You also asked whether the Regional POMS Supplement GN R 00305.475(g) needs clarification in. view of GC opinion re Philip R~ , October 21, 1985, indicating that the estoppel doctrine may be applied to establish the "is-not-married" requirement in cases involving state law determinations under section 216(h)(1)(A) but that the concept of estoppel has no application for purposes of the Federal deemed marriage provision of section 216(h) (1) (B). The referenced POMS subsection addresses (federal) defacto (deemed) marriages and (state) putative marriages only; putative status, in states which recognize it, is in essence a state law equivalent of the federal deemed spouse status. We do not believe that the referenced language in the R~ opinion 6_/ was meant to encompass state law determinations of putative status; estoppel would be inconsistent with applicable legal concepts in that context. Thus, we see no need for amendment of POMS GN R00305.475(g).
1_/ Mr. S~ was an Arizona domiciliary at the time of his death on February 27, 1979.
2_/ Of course, a valid marriage was also precluded by Mr. S~ preexisting marriage to Lucy.
3_/ Even if estoppel were not applied against Erna M., in this case a valid marriage could not be made out due to the preexisting, undissolved marriage between Mr. S~ and Lucy.
4_/ She also could move to have the final judgment signed, dated, filed, and entered nunc pro tunc, granting the divorce as of the date when it could have been entered under the law if applied for. Cal. Civil Code § 4515. The entry of a nunc pro tunc decree would not legalize Erna M.'s marriage to Mr. S~ because of the independent impediment of his prior, undissolved marriage to Lucy.
5_/ You indicated that Mr. S~ applied for disability insurance benefits in July 1986.
6_/ It is important to understand the limits of the Bly G~ holding, paraphrased in Ronning: if, after application of state law, the claimant's divorce is found to be invalid but he/she is estopped from asserting its invalidity, he/she may be considered "not married" for social security benefit purposes.