SSR 61-65. EFFECT OF INVALID DIVORCE WHERE PARTIES ARE ESTOPPED TO DENY ITS VALIDITY
- The worker obtained a Mexican divorce under circumstances which cast doubt upon its validity. Later that year he married the claimant in Florida and was still living with her in Florida 25 years later when she filed claim for wife's insurance benefits on his earnings record. although the first wife had knowledge of the divorce, she never challenged the validity of the divorce. Held, the claimant qualifies as the worker's wife for purpose of entitlement to wife's insurance benefits.
H applied for old-age insurance benefits in January 1961 and became entitled to the benefits claimed beginning January 1960. W applied for wife's insurance benefits on his earnings record at the same time. She had married H in 1936, and they were living together when they filed their claims. Both H and W were domiciled in florida. Before his ceremonial marriage to W, H had secured a divorce from his first wife in Mexico in 1935. H had gone to Mexico and appeared personally in the divorce proceeding, but he and his first wife were domiciled in Florida at the time of the divorce. His first wife was served with notice of the divorce action but did not appear in the proceeding. She received a copy of the decree, knew of H's remarriage and apparently considered her marriage terminated, but she herself did not remarry. H had two children of this first marriage.
The question is whether W is H's wife, as required by section 216(h)(1) of the Social Security Act for entitlement to wife's insurance benefits. All other requirements for entitlement beginning January 1960 have been met by W.
Under section 216(h)(1)(A), a woman is the wife of a worker for purposes of wife's insurance benefits if the courts of the State in which he is domiciled at the time she files her application would find that either (1) the worker and she were validly married at that time, or (2) she would have the same status as a wife for a share in the distribution of his personal property if he had died intestate.
Under section 216(h)(1)(B), enacted in 1960, if no other person is or has been entitled to wife's benefits by meeting one of the alternative requirements above, a claimant who does not meet either of these alternative requirements may nevertheless be deemed to be validly married for purposes of wife's insurance benefits for months after August 1969, under the following conditions: She must in good faith have gone through a marriage ceremony with the worker not knowing of an impediment which made the marriage invalid; she must be living in the same household with the worker when her application is filed; and the impediment must have resulted either from a prior marriage or the dissolution of the prior marriage, or from a defect in the procedure followed in connection with her ceremonial marriage to the worker.
W could probably qualify as H's wife under this "deemed marriage" provision in section 216(h)(1)(B) if her marriage had no legal validity under Florida law. However, September 1960 is the first month for which a woman can be entitled to a wife's benefits on the basis of this provision. On the other hand, if W qualifies as a wife under section 216(h)(1)(A), i.e., if the Florida courts would find either that she was validly married to H or that she would have the same status as a wife with respect to the distribution of his personal property if he died intestate, then she would be entitled to benefits beginning January 1960.
In a timely and proper action, the courts of Florida would doubtless hold invalid a divorce decree procured in a foreign jurisdiction where neither party was domiciled. However, the Florida courts have held that the validity of a marriage cannot be questioned on the ground that a prior divorce of one of the spouses is invalid, unless the party raising the question has a right to impeach the divorce decree. Gaylord v. Gaylord, 45 So. 2d 507 (Fla. 1950); de Marigny v. Marigny, 43 So. 2d 442 (Fla. 1949).
In the present case, H would not be allowed in Florida courts to attack W's marital status by impeaching a divorce decree which he himself had obtained. Hall v. Hall, 112 So. 622 (Fla. 1927); Reichert v. Appel, 74 So. 2d 674 (Fla. 1954). This is in accord with the general rule. His first wife also would be barred by laches; she has waited so long that she cannot now attack the validity of the divorce decree, particularly when this attack involves another marriage of 25 years' duration.
Nor would H's children by his first marriage have standing as potential heirs in Florida courts to impeach the divorce decree, whether considered as strangers or in privity with H. Under Florida law, a stranger assailing the decree must show that he had rights or status which existed prior to the decree and were adversely affected by it; but under florida law a child asserting his rights as heir or potential heir has been held to have merely an expectancy until the death of his father. This is not such a pre-existing right or interest as would be required for a collateral attack upon the decree by a stranger. If the children are regarded as being in privity with H by the Florida courts, the children would not be allowed to attack the decree since they would have no greater right than does H to attack the decree. Alexander v. Colston, 66 So . 2d 673 (Fla. 1953). Thus, Florida courts would refuse to inquire into the validity of W's marriage on the basis of the possible invalidity of H's prior divorce since there is no one who could question the decree in Florida courts so as to defeat W's right to share in H's intestate personal property.
Accordingly, although W's marriage to H may be invalid because of the invalid dissolution of his prior marriage, W nevertheless is H's wife within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Act since she would have the same status as a wife with respect to the distribution of his personal property had he died intestate. Therefore, she is entitled to wife's insurance benefits beginning January 1960.