20 CFR 404.345

SSR 84-18

The claimant and the worker were ceremonially married in Mississippi in 1923. They later separated and, although they were never divorced,t hey both remarried. Both the claimant and the worker were separated but not divorced from their respective later spouses when the claimant applied for wife's insurance benefits on the worker's earnings record in September 1981. Under Mississippi law, where a worker and a spouse separate without obtaining a divorce and the spouse remarries, the spouse is estoppel from denying the termination of his or her marriage to the worker and, thus, would not be considered the worker's spouse for Social Security purposes. In this case, however, the worker was domiciled in Ohio when the claimant filed her application. Therefore, under section 216(h)(1)(A) of the social Security Act (the Act), the laws of Ohio apply in determining whether the claimant is the worker's wife. In assessing the validity of the claimant's marriage to the worker. Ohio would not apply the Mississippi estoppel principle. Instead, Ohio applies a presumption that unless there is positive evidence of the termination of a prior valid marriage, the prior marriage is presumed to continue. Held, Ohio applies the law of Mississippi in determining that the claimant and worker entered into a valid marriage. In determining whether the marriage terminated, however, Ohio follows its own rules because it is the State with paramount interest in the parties and issue. Since the marriage was never terminated, the claimant in the worker's wife under Ohio law and, therefore qualifies as his wife for purposes of entitlement under the Act.

A question has been raised as to whether the claimant is the worker's wife under the Act. At issue is whether Ohio, the worker's present domicile, would look to Mississippi law to determine if the marriage that took place in Mississippi between the worker and the claimant was valid and, further, whether Ohio would apply the Mississippi principle of estoppel, which would preclude the claimant, based on her subsequent marriage, from denying the termination f her marriage to the worker and from asserting the validity of that marriage.

The worker and the claimant were ceremonially married in Mississippi on August 27, 1923. They lived together in Mississippi as husband and wife until some time in the 1930's when they separated. It appears that they have had no contact with each other since that time. Neither the claimant nor the worker has filed for or obtained a divorce and, although the worker has on occasion stated that his marriage to the claimant was ended by divorce, he has also provided information to the contrary. Furthermore, a search of pertinent records has revealed no evidence of a divorce.

The claimant continued to reside in Mississippi until 1940 when she moved to Tennessee, where she has lived to the present time. In 1940, according to her own statement, the claimant, knowing that she was not divorced from the worker, remarried in Arkansas. The claimant alleged that she and her second husband went through a marriage ceremony but did not have the marriage officially recorded because they knew that her marriage to the worker had not ended. Nonetheless, the claimant took the name of her second husband which she continues to use even though they have been separated since 1949. There is no indication that either the claimant or her second husband has sought or obtained a divorce.

Following his separation from the claimant, the worker remarried in Mississippi on april 12, 1941. The worker's second wife, however, had been married previously in Mississippi on December 1, 1929; and although she and her prior husband had been separated, they were never divorced. The worker's second wife stated that, at the time of their alleged marriage, the worker knew that she had been married previously, but not divorced, and that she was aware that he had been married previously, but not whether his marriage had been ended by a divorce. the worker and his second wife lived together as "husband and wife" until 1965 when they separated. Neither of them has obtained or sought to obtain a divorce, and they both live in Ohio at the present time.

The claimant filed an application for wife's insurance benefits on the worker's earnings record on September 28, 1981. her entitlement to benefits is dependent, however, upon whether, at the time she applied for benefits, she was the worker's wife within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Act. The statutory section provides that, for purposes of entitlement to wife's insurance benefits, the question of whether the claimant is the worker's wife is to be determined in accordance with the law of the State of the worker's domicile. When the claimant filed her application, the worker was domiciled in Ohio. Therefore, Ohio law is applicable in determining whether she is his wife.

In determining the validity of a marriage entered into outside of Ohio, that State follows the fairly universally accepted rule that it will look to the law of the State where the marriage occurred. Seabold v. Seabold, 84 N.E. 2nd 521 (1948); In re Zemmick's Estate 76 N.E. 2d 902 (1946). Thus, Ohio will recognize a marriage validly entered into in Mississippi unless it contravenes Ohio public policy to do dos. Seabold v. Seabold, supra. There are no facts here to indicate that the claimant's marriage to the worker was invalid; therefore, with respect to the initial question of the validity of that marriage when it arose, Ohio would recognize it as valid.

It must now be determined whether Ohio would also, in further assessing the validity of the marriage, apply the estoppel principle of Mississippi law which would serve to preclude the claimant, based on her subsequent marriage, even though bigamous, from denying the termination of her marriage to the worker and from asserting the validity of that marriage.[1] In other words, when presented with the question of the validity of the claimant's marriage to the worker, would Ohio act in a manner identical to Mississippi and find the marriage valid when it arose, but estop the claimant from asserting such validity because of her subsequent "marriage," even though bigamous? For the reasons set out below, it is determined that Ohio would not apply the aforementioned Mississippi estoppel principle.

Unlike the majority of states, of which Mississippi is one, Ohio follows the minority rule with respect to presumption of marital status. Thus, in Ohio "it is presumed that once a marriage in entered into it continues until proof of dissolution. To complement this presumption, it is further presumed that there was no valid divorce in the first marriage in the absence of positive proof. Domany v. Otis Elevator Company, 369 F.2d 604 at 610-611 (6th Cir. 1966). Under this minority rule, it is presumed that the status of the parties to the first marriage continued and the burden is on the parties claiming the validity of a second "marriage" to overcome the presumption. Domany v. Otis Elevator Company, supra. Mississippi and the majority of States, on the other hand, presume the validity of a subsequent marriage by presuming that the first marriage has ended in a legal divorce. Under the majority rule, the legality of the subsequent marriage is presumed even where a spouse of the former marriage is living. See Domany, supra. The Mississippi estoppel principle at issue here is a radical extension of the aforementioned "majority rule;" the majority rule results in a presumption of the validity of a subsequent marriage, and the estoppel principle, in fact, effectuates a preclusion of the right to assert the validity of the prior marriage even when the presumption has been rebutted. Thus, under Mississippi law, when the presumption has been rebutted and the estoppel principle is applied, both a prior and a subsequent marriage are, in effect, rendered invalid. This concept is unparalleled in Ohio law and actually appears to contravene the premise of the minority rule followed in Ohio which presumes the invalidity of subsequent "marriages" while upholding the validity of a prior marriage.

Ohio law itself does not have a principle analogous to that of Mississippi, and there have been no cases in which the Ohio courts have specifically applied the Mississippi estoppel principle or have estopped a spouse from asserting the validity of a first marriage even when followed by a bigamous marriage.[2]

Ohio cases involving the general application of estoppel are also at variance with the underlying premise of the Mississippi estoppel principle. In Mississippi, the estoppel principle is applied merely because of the existence of a subsequent bigamous marriage. In Ohio, however, equitable estoppel may be invoked as a defense only when each of 5 specific elements is present. these elements, as noted by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, while applying Ohio law are:

1. False representation or concealment of material facts by words, acts, conduct or silence, where there is a duty to speak,
2. By a person with knowledge, actual or constructive, of the true facts,
3. To a person without as great or sufficient knowledge,
4. With the intention that the misrepresentation or concealment shall be acted on by the latter person,
5. Who must so rely and act thereon, or omit to do some act, to his injury or prejudice. A change of position which will fulfill this element of estoppel must be actual, substantial and justified.

31 C.J.S. Estoppel § 67, p. 254, et seq.; 20 O.Jur.2d 498, et seq.; Gruber v. Savannah River Lumber Co., 4 Cir., 1924, 2F.2d 418, 425; Grouf v. State National Bank, 8 Cir., 1930, 40 F.2d 2, 7; Fleming v. City of Steubenville, 7 Dist., 1931, 44 Ohio App. 121, 184 N.E. 701.

New York Central Railroad Co. v. General Motors Corp., 182 F.Supp. 273 at 288 (N.D.O., 1960). The court in that case further stated:

[I]t is well settled that, where both parties have the same information, or the same means for ascertaining the truth there can be no estoppel. Commercial Inv. Trust v. Bay City Bank, 6 Cir. 1933, 62 F.2d 735, 736.

* * *

There having been no knowledge, misrepresentation or concealment of material facts on the part of plaintiff, no intent by plaintiff that defendant act on any misrepresentation or concealment, and there having been no justifiable reliance by defendant upon the conduct of plaintiff, none of the essential elements of equitable estoppel exist herein.

New York Central Railroad Co. v. General Motors Corp. supra at 289. The Ohio Supreme Court has recently stated:

Equitable estoppel precludes a party from asserting certain facts where the party, by his conduct, his induced another to change his position in good faith reliance upon that conduct. See London: Lancashire Indenin. Co. v. Fairbanks Steam Shovel Co. (1925), 112 Ohio St. 136, 152, 147 N.E. 329 . . . . Because no detrimental reliance is shown upon the record, the Court of Appeals erred in estopping appellants from asserting the personal nature of a special use permit.

The State ex rel. Cities Services Oil Company v. Orteca, 409 N.E.2d 1018 at 1020 (1980). Thus, it appears that unlike the state of the law in Mississippi which permits, and in fact, mandates the application of the estoppel principle merely because of the existence of a subsequent bigamous marriage, the law in Ohio would preclude estoppel in this case because of each of the essential elements for the appropriate invocation of estoppel is not present. See also In Re Estate of Cecere, 242 N.E.2d 701 (1968); Newbern v. Lake Lorelei, Inc., 308 F.Supp. 407 (S.D.O., 1968).

In determining which law to apply in cases where the laws of several States might be invoked,[3] Ohio appears to be following the conflict of laws principle being advanced by the American Law Institute which advocates application of the law of the jurisdiction which has the "most significant contacts" and the paramount interest in the parties and the issues in question. See 16 O.Jur.3d, Conflict of Laws § 12. Since none of the parties here presently reside in Mississippi and have not done so for substantial periods of time, and since the Mississippi law and Ohio law relevant here are so different, it is therefore determined that, in the absence of a clear mandate to apply Mississippi law, Ohio courts would determine that Ohio has a greater stake and interest in the resolution of the question and would apply Ohio law and not the law of Mississippi.

Therefore, since the claimant and the worker were validly married in Mississippi and since the marriage was never terminated, the claimant is the worker's wife under Ohio law for Social Security purposes.

[1] Irrespective of the application of any estoppel principles, the claimant's subsequent "marriage," which took place in Arkansas, would be considered bigamous and therefore void pursuant to the laws of both Arkansas and Tennessee. Similarly, the worker's subsequent marriage was also bigamous, both because of his prior marriage and because of his second wife's prior unended marriage. Farrow v. Hopkins, 453 S.W.2d 785 (1970); Smiley v. Smiley, 448 S.W.2d 642 (1970); see Minor v. Higdon, 61 S.2d 350 (1952). The application of the Mississippi estoppel principle, where appropriate, operates so as to preclude the bigamist, even though a bigamous marriage is invalid, from asserting the continuing validity of the prior marriage, even if such prior marriage was valid when it arose.

[2] It is interesting to note that effective January 1, 1976, Ohio repealed its statute which barred an adulterer from dower in the real property of the innocent spouse. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2103.05 (Page). Hence, if presented with the present matter, it appears that the Ohio courts would not bar the claimant, based on her bigamous relationship, from asserting her dower rights in the worker's real property.

[3] In determining the intestate devolution of personal property, Ohio will look to the domicile of the decedent and not to the situs of the property. Howard v. Reynolds, 283 N.E.2d 269 (1972). Thus, if the worker had died domiciled in Ohio, the Ohio court would look to its own law for purposes of determining intestate succession to personal property.

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