You asked whether D~ (Claimant) validly remarried such that she was not eligible for
widow’s benefits on the record of her former husband, deceased wage earner (DWE) F~.
No. The blessing ceremony between Claimant and S~ did not create a valid marriage
under California law because it did not meet the state’s statutory requirements for
marriage. Because she never validly remarried, Claimant did not lose her entitlement
to widow’s benefits on the DWE’s account.
Claimant validly married the DWE on September XX, 1956, and they remained married
until his death on December XX, 1992. On December XX, 1997, Claimant filed for widow’s
benefits on the DWE’s account and stated that she was not married at the time of her
application. The agency granted widow’s benefits beginning in February 1998 when Claimant
reached the age of 60.
On December XX, 2014, Claimant filed for widow’s benefits on S~s record. In support,
she presented a “Certificate of Marriage” for “S~” and “D~,” dated May XX, 1996, and
signed by Father M~ of St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church. Claimant stated that she
remained married to S~ until his death on May XX, 2011 (15 full years). Claimant stated
that she and S~ lived as a married couple in the community, shared a residence, and
that she was listed as S~’s spouse on his death certificate. When Claimant applied for widow’s benefits on the DWE’s account in December 1997,
she did not disclose her remarriage to S~. Claimant explained that S~ advised her
not to report their marriage because she could obtain higher benefits on the DWE’s
In the course of investigating her entitlement on S~’s account, the service representative
contacted St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church by telephone. Rev. M~. P~ told the service
representative that the church typically performs a convalidation ceremony to bless
the union of a couple who are already married. He further stated that the ceremony
that the church performs constitutes a ceremonial marriage, and that no filing with
the state was required. The agency initially recognized Claimant’s remarriage to S~
On December XX, 2014, Claimant withdrew her application for benefits on S~’s account,
stating that she never married him and that the ceremony was actually a church “blessing.”
On February XX, 2015, the agency notified Claimant that she was not eligible for benefits
on the DWE’s account because of her remarriage. The agency also assessed an overpayment
of $221,123.20 on the same date. On February XX, 2015, the agency denied the claim
on S~’s account based on Claimant’s withdrawal of the claim.
Claimant retained an attorney to represent her before the agency in her appeal of
the termination and overpayment decisions. In her appeals, Claimant stated that what
she previously asserted was a marriage ceremony was actually a church blessing. She
alleged that she never entered into a valid marriage with S~ under California law.
Therefore, she alleged that the agency incorrectly terminated her benefits on the
DWE’s account. Claimant’s requests for reconsideration remain pending.
The priest who performed the blessing ceremony is now deceased. Claimant’s attorney
submitted a signed but unsworn letter from Rev. Msgr. D~ dated December XX, 2014.
Rev. Msgr. D~ stated that church records reflect that Father L~ did not obtain a copy
of a civil marriage license or marriage certificate. Rev. Msgr. D~ wrote that the
church should have titled the marriage certificate a “convalidation,” which is a church
The church marriage certificate states that S~, Jr. witnessed the ceremony. S~, Jr. is the eldest son of S~, co-trustee of his estate while he was living, and
sole trustee and executor of his estate after his passing. In a written statement,
S~, Jr. advised that Father L~ told Claimant and his father that the ceremony would
not result in a legal marriage. Further, S~, Jr. stated that the parties did not obtain
or file a civil marriage license. S~, Jr., explained that S~ was a devout Catholic
and had obtained a church annulment of his prior marriage so that he could continue
to participate in the sacraments of the church. He further stated that, with respect
to estate planning, his father did not provide for Claimant in his estate pursuant
to his intent that he and Claimant would maintain separate estates.
In a signed but unsworn letter dated February XX, 2015, Claimant stated that she lived
with, but did not marry S~. She stated that S~ was a devout Catholic and wanted the
blessing of the Catholic Church in order to live with Claimant. She further stated
that S~’s priest, Father L~, counseled them that a blessing did not constitute a legal
marriage. Claimant stated that she never obtained a marriage license because she did
not want to remarry after the DWE’s death, and she did not want to lose the medical
insurance or Social Security benefits she received on the DWE’s account. Finally,
she stated that she was not named as S~’s spouse on any trust, property documents,
or income tax filings, and that she did not have power of attorney over his estate.
Claimant requested that the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk search
the county’s public indexes for marriage documents recorded from December 1992 (the
month of the DWE’s death) to November XX, 2014 in her full name (D~). She also requested
that the clerk search the county’s public indexes for marriage documents recorded
from January 1996 (the year of the church blessing ceremony) to December 2011 (the
year that S~ passed away) under her first and last names (D~). The clerk certified
that there were no marriage records within these search parameters.
For entitlement to widow’s benefits, a claimant must show that he or she was the spouse
of the number holder and that he or she remains unmarried. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(e); Program Operations Manual System (“POMS”) RS 00207.001.A.1.b; POMS RS 00207.003.A (“Generally, a claimant for widow(er)’s…benefits must be unmarried in order to
be entitled”). Here, there is no question that Claimant was married to the DWE. However, the question
remains whether her blessing ceremony with S~ constituted a remarriage such that she
was not entitled to widow’s benefits on the DWE’s account.
The Social Security Act (the Act) recognizes a spousal relationship when the claimant
and a number holder were validly married under state law. See Act §§ 202 & 216(h)(1)(A)(i), 42 U.S.C. §§ 402 & 416(h)(1)(A)(i); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335, 404.344, 404.345. The Act looks to the law of the state where
the deceased wage earner lived at the time of his death to determine whether a claimant’s
marriage to an insured individual is valid. See Act § 216(h)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345; POMS RS
00202.001.A.1 (“A legal spouse must be validly married to the NH under the laws of the State
of the NH’s domicile at the time the claimant files an application or during the life
of the application.”) However, neither the Act nor our regulations address which law
governs the validity of the surviving spouse’s remarriage to a third party. See Act § 216(h)(1)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345; POMS PR 05005.006 (Feb. 4, 2015).
Here, the DWE and S~ lived in California at the time of their deaths, and Claimant
resided in California at all relevant times. Accordingly, although the Act is silent
in this regard, we need not resolve the question because California law is the only
state law that is relevant to determining the validity of Claimant’s purported remarriage
to the DWE.
If a marriage does not satisfy state law, the Act permits the agency to consider the
marriage valid in limited circumstances. See Act §§ 216(h)(1)(A)(ii) (treating a claimant as a putative spouse if she could inherit
under state laws for intestate succession), 216(h)(1)(B)(1) (deeming the marriage
valid if, in good faith, the claimant went through a marriage ceremony with the insured
but there was a legal impediment); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.345, 404.346; see also POMS GN 00305.055 (defining deemed marriage), GN
00305.085 (defining putative marriage), RS 00207.001 (a claimant is entitled to widow’s benefits if she was the NH’s legal souse, putative
spouse, or deemed spouse). These provisions ordinarily assist a claimant seeking benefits
when there is an otherwise invalid marriage. However, these provisions do not apply
when determining whether remarriage would preclude payment of widow’s benefits in
California. See POMS RS 00207.003.C (a putative remarriage in California will not affect entitlement to widow’s benefits).
There are five statutory requirements for creating a valid marriage in California.
First, the parties must consent to the marriage. Second, the parties must obtain a
valid marriage license. Third, the marriage must be solemnized. Fourth, the person
solemnizing the marriage must authenticate the marriage by signing the certificate
of registry on the marriage license form and arranging for at least one witness’s
signature. Finally, the certificate of registry must be filed with the county clerk,
at which point the marriage license becomes a marriage certificate. Cal. Fam. Code
§§ 300, 306, 420; see In re Estate of DePasse, 97 Cal. App. 4th 92, 101 (Cal. App. 2002).
California courts expressly hold that the failure to comply with statutory licensing,
certification, or solemnization requirements render a marriage invalid. In re Estate of DePasse, 97 Cal. App. 4th at 102-103 (holding that California Family Code requirements are
mandatory, which means a marriage is invalid in the absence of a marriage license);
see also Burnham v. Cal. Pub. Employees Ret. Sys., 208 Cal. App. 4th 1576, 1584–85 (Cal. Ct. App. 2012) (failure to solemnize wedding
renders it invalid); In re Estate of Tollefsen, No. A123071, 2009 WL 3470401, at *6 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2009) (citing In re Estate of DePasse, 97 Cal. App. 4th at 92; Lockyer v. San. Fran., 33 Cal. 4th 1055, 1116 (Cal. 2004)); see also POMS PR 05405.006.C (except under special circumstances, “a marriage license must
be procured to render a marriage valid in California”).
Although Claimant withdrew, and the agency denied, her application for widow’s benefits
on S~’s account, the validity of her marriage to S~ remains the key issue for determining
her entitlement to widow’s benefits on the DWE’s account. Under California law, Claimant
did not meet the statutory requirements for a valid marriage to S~. See Cal. Fam. Code §§ 300, 306 (requiring consent, license, solemnization, authentication,
and recording); accord POMS PR 05405.006.C (recognizing California’s marriage license
First, the parties did not consent to legally marry each other. The available evidence
indicates that Father L~ counseled Claimant and S~ that the blessing ceremony did
not create a legal marriage. Claimant stated that she did not want to remarry after
the DWE’s death, in part because she wanted to preserve her status as his widow for
purposes of obtaining Social Security benefits. Additionally, S~ had faith-based reasons
for not seeking a full remarriage. Further, by maintaining separate legal estates,
the parties did not treat each other as spouses. These facts indicate that neither
party consented to marriage.
Second, the parties did not obtain a marriage license. Claimant and S~’s son, who
witnessed the blessing, affirmed that the parties intentionally did not obtain a marriage
license or state recognition of the marriage. The church records did not note the
existence of a marriage license or marriage certificate; Father L~ did not record
the blessing ceremony as a civil marriage or ceremony with proof of a prior civil
marriage. See Cal. Fam. Code § 421 (before solemnizing a marriage, the person solemnizing the marriage
shall require the presentation of the marriage license).
In similar circumstances, a California appellate court held that a religious commitment
ceremony did not result in a valid marriage in the absence of a marriage license.
In the case of In re Marriage of Left, 208 Cal. App. 4th 1137 (Cal. Ct. App. 2012), a woman was unable to remarry because
her divorce was not yet finalized, and the parties elected to proceed with a commitment
ceremony. Id. at 1141. The parties informed the rabbi 30 minutes before the ceremony that they
did not have a marriage license. Id. The wife’s first husband later petitioned the court to terminate spousal support
on the grounds that she remarried. Id. at 1142. The court concluded that the commitment ceremony did not constitute a valid
marriage, as the parties did not have a marriage license and the rabbi knew this fact.
Id. at 1145-46. The decision in Marriage of Left indicates that a California court would
not find Claimant’s blessing ceremony resulted in a legal marriage, principally because
the parties did not obtain a marriage license.
Third, neither Father L~ nor the witnesses authenticated a certificate of marriage
registry. S~, Jr., affirmed that he did not sign such a document, in keeping with
his understanding that the ceremony did not create a legal marriage.
Fourth, the available county records do not show an authenticated certificate of registry.
Claimant conducted two searches of the county marriage records during the relevant
time period, and the county certified that no marriage records existed.
In conclusion, the blessing ceremony did not result in a valid marriage under California
law due to defects with the consent, licensing, authentication, and recording requirements
The evidence shows that Claimant and S~ never intended to enter into a legal marriage.
In addition, they did not comply with California’s marriage licensing, authentication,
and recording requirements. As a result, they never legally married under California
law. See Cal. Fam. Code §§ 300, 306, 420; In re Estate of DePasse, 97 Cal. App. 4th at 102-103. Accordingly, Claimant did not remarry after the DWE’s
death and remains unmarried for purposes of establishing her entitlement to widow’s
benefits on the DWE’s account. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(e); POMS GN 00305.125. To the extent the agency based its overpayment assessment on a determination that
Claimant remarried, that determination should be reconsidered.