20 CFR 404.1105

SSR 69-1

Where, pursuant to section 7(5) of the New York Domestic Relation Law, the court granted the insured worker a degree of annulment dissolving his marriage to the claimant, which had existed for a continuous period of over 20 years, and directed that he make monthly payments for the care and maintenance of the claimant, and where, under New York law, such decree has the same effect as a final decree of divorce, held, the decree, although designated an annulment, may be considered a decree of "divorce a vinculo matrimonii" within the meaning of section 216(d)(4) of the Social Security Act, and accordingly, claimant is entitled to wife's insurance benefits as the divorced wife of the insured worker, all other conditions for entitlement having been met.

The Z State Hospital filed an application on behalf of W for wife's insurance benefits as the divorced wife of R, an old-age insurance beneficiary. The evidence established that R, in 1949, after more than 20 years of marriage to W, was awarded a decree of annulment of marriage under section 7(5) of the New York Domestic Relations Law on the ground of W's incurable insanity which had existed for a period of more than 5 years. This decree also directed R to make monthly payments for the suitable care and maintenance of W.

Section 202(b)(1) of the Social Security Act provides, in pertinent part, that wife's insurance benefits may be payable for months after August 1965 to a divorced wife of an individual entitled to old-age or disability insurance benefits where certain conditions, not here in issue, are met.

Section 216(d) of the Act provides, in part, as follows:

(1) The term "divorced wife" means a woman divorced from an individual, but only if she had been married to such individual for a period of 20 years immediately before the date the divorce became effective.

* * * * * * *

(4) The terms "divorce" and "divorced" refer to a divorce a vinculo matrimonii.

The question raised is whether the decree of annulment may be treated as a divorce a vinculo matrimonii within the meaning of section 216(d)(4), supra, for the purpose of establishing W's status as R's divorced wife, thus entitling her to wife's insurance benefits.

The New York Supreme Court, in Kuphal v. Kuphal, 29 N.Y.S. 2d 868 (Sup. Ct. 1941), has described the difference between an annulment proceeding and a proceeding brought under Domestic Relations Law section 7(5) as follows:

The theory of an annulment is that a valid marriage never came into existence. Here the plaintiff's cause of action is based upon a case arising subsequent to the marriage and hence, is an action to dissolve a marriage validly contracted, for cause recognized by the law arising after the inception of the marital relationship.

See also Ambruster v. Ambruster, 8 N.Y.S. 2d 821 (Sup. Ct. 1938). The complaint in this case similarly asserts that a ground for dissolution arose after a valid marriage came into being. It thus appears that the "annulment" proceeding authorized by Domestic Relations Law, section 7(5) is in effect a proceeding for divorce. In the light of the above decisions, it appears reasonable to deem a decree of dissolution of a marriage on the ground of insanity arising after the marriage as equivalent to a "divorce a vinculo matrimonii."

Such an interpretation would appear consistent with the intent of Congress in extending wife's insurance benefits to women divorced after 20 years of marriage. The report of the House Committee on Ways and Means on H.R. 6675, the Social Security Amendments of 1965, stated the change was meant to:

* * * provide protection mainly for women who have spent their lives in marriages that are dissolved when they are far along in years * * * from loss of benefit rights through divorce. H.R. Rep. 213, 89th Cong., 1st sess. 94 (1965).

This purpose is equally applicable to the case of a woman whose marriage lasted for 20 years prior to being dissolved pursuant to section 7(5) of the New York Domestic Relations Law. Whether the decree issued by the State court is called a divorce or annulment under State law is irrelevant to the economic situation faced by the individual where the decree has the legal effect of terminating the marriage.

In view of the foregoing it is held that the decree granted under section 7(5) of the New York Domestic Relations Law, although designated an annulment, constituted a divorce "a vinculo matrimonii" within the meaning of section 216(d) of the Act, and accordingly, W having met all other conditions of entitlement, is entitled to wife's insurance benefits as R's divorced wife.

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