You have requested our opinion on whether the New Hampshire Probate Court document
decreeing a common law marriage between the deceased, James E~, and the applicant,
Renee K~ is legal, whether the 1987 ceremonial marriage between the deceased and applicant
meets the regulatory definition to constitute a marriage for entitlement to widow's
benefits, and whether the child of the applicant can be considered a step-child of
the deceased for the purpose of receiving surviving child benefits. For the following
reasons, we believe that the Probate Court's finding is not binding on the Agency.
We also believe that the 1987 ceremonial marriage does not meet the regulatory requirements
to constitute a valid marriage to establish entitlement to widow's benefits or step-child's
On April 8, 2008, Ms. K~ petitioned for surviving spouse's benefits for herself, and
surviving child's benefits for her adopted son, Daniel K~. Ms. K~ claims that she
married the deceased number holder as of May 1, 1987, by common law in New Hampshire,
which has been affirmed by the Probate Court of New Hampshire.
1. Legality of Probate Court Order
Your first question is whether the Probate Court Order, issued on August 9, 2000,
finding that Ms. K~ is the common-law spouse of the decreased number holder, Mr. E~,
is legal and binding on the Agency. Pursuant to Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c,
the Agency need not always accept a state court order in a proceeding in which the
Agency was not a party. Rather, the Agency will accept the state court order only
if the issue before the court was genuinely contested by parties with opposing interests,
and the court's order is consistent with the law enunciated by the state's highest
Here, the issue of the existence of a common-law marriage was not contested in the
Probate Court. Further, the facts do not support a finding that Ms. K~ met New Hampshire's
statutory requirements to be deemed a common-law spouse.
First, while Ms. K~ claims that she and Mr. E~ shared a religious ceremony in 1982,
she was not officially divorced from her husband, Mr. K~, until June 7, 1983. We would
also note that we have no information to validate the claim that a religious ceremony
took place in 1982, since Ms. K~ failed to provide a specific date, location, or any
other corroborating evidence.
Ms. K~ also claimed in her Petition to the Court that she and Mr. E~ shared a family
life, and raised two children, Yuri K~ and Daniel K~. Mr. E~, however, is not listed
on Daniel K~'s adoption decree, dated June 28, 1989.
Ms. K~ further asserted in her Petition that she and Mr. E~ owned property together
in Danbury, New Hampshire as joint tenants with right of survivorship. Ms. K~, however,
has failed to present any documentary evidence demonstrating that she and/or Mr. E~
owned property in New Hampshire.
Lastly, Ms. K~ did not meet the requirements to be deemed legally married in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire does not recognize common-law marriage but the state will, after the
death of one of them, deem a couple to have been legally married if they were competent
to contract marriage, cohabitated and acknowledged each other as husband and wife,
and stayed in the relationship for three years. All of these events must have occurred
while they were domiciled in New Hampshire. GN 00305.075 and N.H. Rev. Stat. 457:39. Pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. 21.6-a, domicile is a location
that is designated by an individual as his principal place of physical presence for
the indefinite future to the exclusion of others.
Here, there is no evidence that either Mr. E~ or Ms. K~ intended to make New Hampshire
their principal place of residence. This is evidenced by the fact that while Ms. K~
reported to the Social Security Administration that she may have resided in New Hampshire
for an extended period between 1988 and 1990, she lists her residence as Cambridge,
MA on the June 1989 adoption decree for Daniel K~. Mr. E~'s 1999 Death Certificate
also lists both his residence and Ms. K~'s as Cambridge, MA. Further, Mr. E~ did not
hold Ms. K~ out as his wife, as on his death certificate he is listed as "never married."
Therefore, as there is no documentary evidence that a religious or any other type
of marriage ceremony occurred in New Hampshire, that either Mr. E~ or Ms. K~ lived
or owned property in New Hampshire, or that either party was ever domiciled in New
Hampshire, the Probate Court's Order finding that a common-law marriage existed is
not binding on the Agency.
2. Significance of 1987 Ceremonial Marriage
Your second question is whether the ceremonial marriage in 1987 meets the criteria
in the regulations to constitute a marriage for entitlement to widow's benefits. Pursuant
to 20 C.F.R. § 404.345, to determine an applicant's relationship as the insured's
widow, the Agency must look to the laws of the state where the insured's permanent
home was when he died. The regulations define a permanent home as the true and fixed
home of a person, the place to which he intends to return when absent. 20 C.F.R. §
Under this regulatory section, Mr. E~'s permanent home when he died was in Massachusetts.
There is no evidence that Mr. E~ and Ms. K~ were validly married in Massachusetts,
as Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox's stated that while she performed a religious ceremony
in 1987, she did not solemnize the marriage under Massachusetts law. Therefore, since
Massachusetts does not recognize common-law marriage, Ms. K~ does not meet the definition
for an insured widow.
The 1987 ceremonial marriage also does not meet the regulatory requirements for a
deemed valid marriage. Pursuant to the regulations, an individual will be deemed to
be a wife if in good faith she went through the marriage ceremony with the insured
that would have resulted in a valid marriage except for a legal impediment. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.346(a). In the present case, however, there is no evidence that Ms. K~ or Mr.
E~ attempted to enter into a valid marriage. As was discussed above, the rabbi made
no attempt to solemnize the relationship under state law, and thus there was no good
faith attempt to enter into a valid and state-sanctioned marriage.
3. Status of Daniel K~
Your third question is whether Daniel K~ can be considered a step-child of the deceased
number holder for the purpose of receiving surviving child's benefits. A child may
be eligible for benefits if, after his birth, his natural or adoptive parent marries
the insured. 20 C.F.R. § 404.357. The marriage between the natural parent and the
insured must be valid under state law unless the union meets the requirements for
a deemed marriage under section 346(a). Id.
Here, Ms. K~, Daniel's adoptive mother, was never married or deemed married to the
insured. For this reason, Daniel K~ is not eligible for surviving child's benefits.
For the reasons discussed above, we believe that the Probate Court's finding that
a common-law marriage existed is not binding on the Agency. We also believe that the
1987 ceremonial marriage does not meet the regulatory requirements to constitute a
valid marriage to establish entitlement to widow's benefits or step-child's benefits.