TN 2 (07-10)

PR 06315.001 Alabama

A. PR 10-120 Reinstatement of Widow’s Insurance Benefits Following an Alabama Annulment

DATE: July 12, 2010

1. SYLLABUS

The issue in this case is whether annulment of the claimant’s marriage to an individual after the death of the number holder allows the Social Security Administration (SSA) to reinstate retroactively the widow’s insurance benefits that she previously received as the surviving spouse of the deceased number holder. While the Alabama Order of Annulment found the marriage to be void, this state court decision is not binding on SSA because it appears inconsistent with law that the state’s highest court articulated.  SSA believes that the Alabama Supreme Court would find the marriage voidable instead of void because the alleged concealment of an adopted child does not go to the essence of the marriage. Thus, the claimant’s marriage is voidable for SSA purposes, and the claimant became unmarried as of the date of the annulment and entitled to widow’s insurance benefits only as of the date of the order of annulment.

2. OPINION

QUESTION

You have asked whether the annulment of the claimant’s marriage to an individual after the death of the number holder permits the Social Security Administration (SSA) retroactively to reinstate widow’s insurance benefits the claimant previously received as the surviving spouse of the deceased number holder.

OPINION

The claimant’s later marriage was voidable, not void under applicable law.  Therefore, the claimant could not become eligible for reinstatement of widow’s insurance benefits on the earnings record of the number holder before the month of the annulment.

BACKGROUND

Lois C~ (Claimant) became entitled to widow’s insurance benefits on the earnings record of D. R. C~, the number holder (NH), effective December 2004.  Clamant then married Joseph B. C~ on October 29, 2008, in Florida. Due to Claimant’s remarriage, SSA terminated Claimant’s widow’s insurance benefits effective October 2008.

On March 5, 2010, Mr. C~ filed a complaint for annulment, stating that he was induced fraudulently into the marriage.  Mr. C~ alleged Claimant committed fraud by failing to inform him that she was the adoptive parent of a natural grandchild and he would be responsible for the child’s custody and care.  He also alleged the marriage was unconsummated as of the date of the complaint, the couple had not acquired any property jointly, and no children were born of the marriage. On March 5, 2010, Claimant and Mr. C~ entered a settlement agreement to determine the parties’ rights and responsibilities, if any, regarding property, debt, child support, and alimony.  On March 11, 2010, the Circuit Court of Baldwin County, Alabama entered an Order granting the petition for annulment and finding the marriage between the parties was void. Clamant now requests reinstatement of her widow’s insurance benefits on NH’s account due to the annulment of her marriage to Mr. C~. 

DISCUSSION

A widow can only qualify for widow’s insurance benefits under the Social Security Act (Act), if (with certain exceptions not present here) she is unmarried. See Act § 202(e)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §  404.335(e) (2009); Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00207.001(B)(1). If a claimant remarries and the subsequent marriage is void under state law, the claimant can collect benefits as if the subsequent marriage never happened.  See POMS GN 00305.120, GN 00305.125. Thus, if Claimant’s marriage to Mr. C~ was void under Alabama law, she could collect retroactive benefits for the entire duration of her voided marriage. However, if Claimant’s marriage to Mr. C~ was merely voidable, she could reapply for widow’s insurance benefits as NH’s surviving spouse, but SSA could find Claimant eligible for benefits no earlier than the month of the annulment.  See POMS GN 00305.130B(1)(a). 

According to the marriage certificate, Mr. C~ was a Florida resident and Claimant was an Alabama resident when they married in 2008. The couple got their marriage license and married in Florida.  According to the complaint for annulment, Mr. C~ had been an Alabama resident for six months prior to filing his complaint. The child support information sheet, which appears to have been completed at the time of the annulment action, shows Claimant had the same Alabama residence as Mr. C~. Therefore, Claimant appears to have been an Alabama resident at the time of the annulment.  An Alabama court has no jurisdiction over a marital claim unless the litigants satisfy certain residency requirements and any judgment entered by a court without jurisdiction is void. See Hamilton v. Hamilton, 12 So. 3d (Ct. Civ. App. 2009).  Because Claimant and Mr. C~ were residents of Alabama but were married in Florida, we first determined whether the Alabama court had jurisdiction to annul this Florida marriage.  The Alabama court had jurisdiction because Claimant, the defendant in this annulment action, was a resident of Alabama at the time of the marriage and when the annulment action was filed; and Mr. C~ had been an Alabama resident for six months when the annulment action was filed. See Hamlet v. Hamlet, 4 So.2d 901, 902 (Ala. 1941); cf. Ala. Code § 30-2-5 (“When the defendant is a nonresident, the other party to the marriage must have been a bona fide resident of this state for six months next before the filing of the complaint, which must be alleged in the complaint and proved.”).  The Hamlet court specifically held that the Alabama court’s jurisdiction extends over its citizens and their marital status, without regard to where the marriage ceremony occurred. See id. The Alabama court had jurisdiction over the couple’s marital status because Claimant was an Alabama resident at the time of the marriage and both parties were residents of Alabama at the time of the annulment proceedings; so, we look to Alabama law to determine whether Claimant’s marriage to Mr. C~ was void or voidable.

Under Alabama law, “few, if any, kinds of fraud or trickery will warrant an annulment after the marital status has been entered upon by cohabitation and marital intercourse has intervened.” Hyslop v. Hyslop, 2 So. 2d 442, 444 (Ala. 1941).  However, a court may annul a marriage because of fraudulent inducement at the time of the marriage that goes to “the essence of the marriage relation.”  Janda v. Janda, 984 So. 2d 434, 436 (Ala. Civ. App. 2007) (citing Williams v. Williams, 105 So. 2d 676, 678 (Ala. 1958)). Read together, these cases indicate that the fraudulent inducement to marry must be so extreme that it goes to the essence of the marriage. See Janda, 984 So. 2d at 438 (“It may readily be conceded that a court should not annul a marriage on the ground of fraud except in extreme cases, where the particular fraud goes to the very essence of the marriage relation.”)(quoting Millar v. Millar, 167 P. 394 (Cal. 1917)). 

We have not found any Alabama case law that specifically addresses whether the alleged fraud involved here, concealment of an adopted child, goes to the essence of the marriage relation. However, an Alabama court has held that concealment of the inability to procreate was insufficient grounds to annul a marriage.  See e.g., Smith v. Smith 23 So. 2d 605, 610 (Ala. 1945). Similarly, where a wife was alleged to have misrepresented her age and her love for her husband so that she could receive his allotment check from the United States government, those misrepresentations were also insufficient grounds to prove fraud that went to the essence of the marriage because there was no allegation that she entered the marriage with the intent not to perform her marital vows and no allegation that she disavowed or refused to perform or fulfill her vows. Williams, 105 So. 2d at 677-78.  By contrast, Alabama courts have found fraud that goes to the essence of the marriage when a person enters into a marriage covenant by a ceremonial marriage with the intent not to perform the marriage vows, followed by immediate disavowal, and refusal to perform the vows.  See Raia v. Raia, 108 So. 11, 12 (Ala. 1926); Hyslop, 2 So. 2d at 444; Janda, 984 So. 2d at 436 (holding that a sexual relationship is implicit in marriage and that an unstated intent, held at the time of the marriage ceremony, to refuse to engage in a sexual relationship with the other party is fraud that alters the essence of the marriage).  The Janda court cited several out-of-circuit cases that found fraud that went to the essence of the marriage relations.  See 984 So. 2d at 438 n. 4 (citing In re the Marriage of Meagher, 31 Cal.Rptr.3d 663, 667 (Cal. Ct. App. 2005) (recognizing that annulments on the basis of fraud are generally granted only in cases in which the fraud related in some way to the sexual or procreative aspects of marriage); In re Marriage of Liu, 242 Cal.Rptr. 649, 656-57 (Cal. Ct. App. 1987) (annulling marriage because wife had fraudulently induced husband into marriage so that the wife could obtain a “green card”); Bishop v. Bishop, 308 N.Y.S.2d 998 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.1970) (denying husband's petition for annulment based on fraudulent inducement; court found no fraud in wife's attempt to obtain a divorce and in her refusal to consummate the marital relationship because husband himself testified that he and wife had agreed they would marry and then immediately divorce; such an agreement did not contemplate marital intercourse).

Here, the Circuit Court of Baldwin County, Alabama granted Mr. C~’s petition for annulment, which included an allegation of fraud. The order of annulment is silent as to the grounds of the annulment but the order does indicate that the order is based on a pleading, testimony taken by deposition, and the parties’ written agreement.  Though Mr. C~ alleged fraud because Claimant allegedly concealed her adoption of her grandson, there is no indication that the court concluded that fraud was actually involved.  In light of the above-mentioned case law tending to show that concealing certain facts is not grounds for an annulment, the alleged fraud involved here was not so extreme that it would go to the essence of the marriage relations. We have no evidence that Claimant refused to have more children or refused to perform any of her marital vows. We therefore conclude that the trial court was without legal authority to find fraud that went to the essence of Claimant’s marriage so as to annul Claimant’s marriage.

The court here also annulled the marriage but an annulment is the proper remedy for the dissolution of a void marriage. Cooney v. Cooney, 840 So. 2d 903, 905 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002). An annulment renders a marriage void from the beginning, while a divorce terminates the marriage as of the date of the judgment of dissolution. See Thomas v. Campbell, 960 So. 2d 694, 698 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006). Therefore, we also believe the court here could not have granted Mr. C~’s request for an annulment.

Furthermore, the Order of Annulment in this case found the marriage “void.” Under Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-37c, SSA is not bound by a state court decision to which it was not a party. See SSR 83-37c. However, the Agency cannot ignore and usually must accept a state court decision if all four of the following prerequisites are met: “(1) an issue in a claim for Social Security benefits previously has been determined by a State court of competent jurisdiction; (2) this issue was genuinely contested before the State court by parties with opposing interests; (3) the issue falls within the general category of domestic relations law; and (4) the resolution by the State trial court is consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the State.” SSR 83-37c (implementing Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973)). This order meets the first and third criteria of SSR 83-37c. 

However, we believe that an Alabama Supreme Court would find that the marriage here was “voidable” not “void.”  For instance, under Janda, the most recent Alabama court to consider fraudulent inducement to marry, even if there was fraud perpetuated at the time of the marriage and going to the essence of the marital relationship, that fraud would render the marriage voidable by the injured party.  Janda, 984 So. 2d at 436, 439. The effect of finding that this marriage is voidable is that the marriage was binding until the court declared it void: “[A] major difference between a void marriage and a voidable marriage is that the latter is treated as binding until its nullity is ascertained and declared by a competent court, whereas the former does not require such a judgment because the parties could not enter into a valid marital relationship.”  Broadus v. Broadus, 361 So. 2d 582, 584 (Ala. Civ. App. 1978). 

We conclude that because the only alleged flaw was a concealment of adoption and because Alabama courts would not find that concealment to go to the essence of the marriage, Claimant’s marriage is at most voidable for purposes of SSA, regardless of whether the court annulled Claimant’s marriage to Mr. C~. Therefore, she is entitled to widow’s insurance benefits effective only as of the date of the order of the annulment.

CONCLUSION

Because Claimant’s marriage to Mr. C~ was voidable rather than void, Claimant became unmarried only as of the date of the annulment. Therefore, SSA cannot find Claimant eligible for widow’s insurance benefits as NH’s surviving spouse before the month of the annulment.

Mary Ann S~
Regional Chief Counsel
By: ___________
Arthurice T. B~
Assistant Regional Counsel


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http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/1506315001
PR 06315.001 - Alabama - 07/23/2010
Batch run: 07/23/2010
Rev:07/23/2010