SSR 74-10: SECTIONS 216(c) and 216(h)(1)(B) (42 U.S.C. 416(c) and 416(h)(1)(B)). -- RELATIONSHIP -- WHAT CONSTITUTES MARRIAGE CEREMONY

20 CFR 404.708a

SSR 74-10

Held, where no other formality or solemnization surrounded a purported marriage, the mere act of acquiring a marriage license cannot constitute a "marriage ceremony" within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Social Security Act even though the parties in good faith believed that this act gave rise to a valid marriage relationship.

R, the worker, and W, his alleged spouse, obtained a marriage license in the State of Washington on July 5, 1960. Both parties had little knowledge of the English language and almost no formal education. Although both had been married and divorced while living in Mexico before coming to the United States, they were unfamiliar with Washington marriage law and in good faith believed that when they obtained the marriage license, a marriage resulted without further ceremony or solemnization. After acquiring the marriage license, R and W lived together at all times in the State of Washington until R's death on January 21, 1968. However, a marriage ceremony between R and W did not take place until January 2, 1968, when they learned that failure to solemnize a marriage prevented creation of a marriage relationship in that State.

W's application for widow's insurance benefits was denied on the grounds that she was not married to the deceased worker "for a period of not less than nine months immediately prior to the day on which he died" as required by section 216(c) of the Social Security Act. This action was affirmed upon judicial review in Perez v. finch, 320 F.Supp. 787 (E.D. Wash., 1970).

The question now in issue is whether the obtaining of a marriage license, where the parties in good faith believed that such act, by itself, was sufficient for a valid marriage, constitutes a "marriage ceremony" within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act.

Washington Rev. Code Ann. ยง 260.04.140 (1970) states that before any persons can be joined in marriage, they shall procure a license from a county auditor authorizing any person or religious organization to join together the persons as husband and wife. The State of Washington does not recognize common-law marriage if contracted and consummated in Washington. See In re Gallagher's Estate, 213 P.2d 621 (Wash. 1950).

Section 216(h)(1)(B), the so-called "de facto" marriage provision of the Act, provides, in pertinent part:

In any case where under subparagraph (A) an applicant is not (and is not deemed to be) the . . . widow . . . of a fully or currently insured individual, or where under subsection . . . (c) . . . such applicant is not the . . . widow . . . of such individual, but it is established to the satisfaction of the Secretary that such applicant in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with such individual resulting in a purported marriage between them which, but for a legal impediment not known to the applicant at the time of such ceremony, would have been a valid marriage, and such applicant and the insured individual were living in the same household at the time of the death of such insured individual . . . then, for purposes of subparagraph (A) and subsection . . . (c) . . . such purported marriage shall be deemed to be a valid marriage. . . . For purposes of this subparagraph, a legal impediment to the validity of a purported marriage includes only an impediment (i) resulting from the lack of dissolution of a previous marriage or otherwise arising out of such previous marriage or its dissolution, or (ii) resulting from a defect in the procedure followed in connection with such purported marriage." (Emphasis added.)

Section 216(h)(1)(B) may apply only in cases where there has been a marriage ceremony which, but for a legal impediment unknown to the applicant at the time of the ceremony, would have been a valid marriage. The section defines a "legal impediment" as an impediment (i) resulting from the lack of dissolution of a previous marriage or otherwise arising out of such previous marriage or its dissolution, or (ii) resulting from a defect in the procedure followed in connection with such purported marriage. In discussing an impediment resulting from a defect in the procedure followed in connection with a purported marriage, both the Senate and House Reports cite, as an example of a defect in the procedure, failure to comply in one or more respects with any provision of State law relating to the performance of a marriage ceremony or to the kind of ceremony required. See House Rep. No. 1799, 86th Cong., 2d Sess. 91 (1960) and Sen. Rep. No. 1856, 86th Cong., 2d Sess. 78 (1960). Thus, the statute quite clearly envisages and requires a marriage ceremony, and without some form of solemnization, the act of acquiring a marriage license cannot be considered a marriage ceremony.

The instant case differs from a situation in which some further action may have been taken by the parties. For example, where there has been an observance by the parties of what they believed to be the legal formalities necessary for a ceremonial marriage, the Social Security Administration would not be precluded from a conclusion that the good faith securing of a marriage license in the presence of two witnesses constituted a "marriage ceremony" with the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act. The fact that such parties intend to have a marriage ceremony and, pursuant to that intent, secure a marriage license in the presence of two witnesses adds an element of formality to an otherwise preliminary and wholly ministerial event. With witnesses present, there is something more than the mere acquisition of a marriage license and the purported marriage under such circumstances may be surrounded by sufficient formality to constitute a "marriage ceremony."

Although the Social Security Act is a remedial statute and as such should be liberally construed to allow benefit payments, there are outer limits of liberality of interpretation in favor of the claimant. Therefore, unless other formalities or solemnization surround a purported marriage, the mere act of acquiring a marriage license may not be considered a "marriage ceremony" within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act even though the parties in good faith believe that acquiring such license is all that is necessary to create a valid marriage. To hold otherwise would interpret the requirement of a ceremonial marriage out of the statute.

Accordingly, it is held that in the absence of a "marriage ceremony," no valid marriage relationship arose and W does not qualify as R's widow under section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act.


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