EFFECTIVE DATE: 4/8/86
Definition of stepchild for purposes of entitlement to child's insurance benefits on the earnings record of a recipient of old-age insurance benefits.
Sections 202(b)(1), (d)(1) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 402(b)(1), (d)(1)); 20 C.F.R. 404.357; SSR 66-11, SSR 81-28c
NINTH (ALASKA, CALIFORNIA, ARIZONA, NEVADA, OREGON, WASHINGTON, IDAHO, MONTANA, HAWAII, GUAM, NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS)
Hutcheson v. Califano, 638 F.2d 96 (9th Cir. 1981)
Elwood Hutcheson, an insured individual entitled to old-age insurance benefits under Section 202(a) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 402(a), married Doris Hutcheson on June 5, 1970. In October 1972, they separated. During the separation, on October 10, 1973, Doris gave birth to a daughter, Sarah, in New Jersey, where Doris was living at the time. On Sarah's birth certificate, one David Robinson is listed as the father. Subsequent to Sarah's birth, on March 3, 1974, Doris and Sarah returned to Elwood's home in Yakima, Washington, where they have lived ever since. After he became entitled to benefits, Elwood legally adopted Sarah on May 16, 1974.
Later Doris Hutcheson applied for Social Security benefits as a wife with an entitled child in her care, and for child's benefits on behalf of Sarah, based upon the earnings record of Elwood. Both applications were denied by the Social Security Administration (SSA) since Sarah, who was not the natural child of the wage earner (Elwood), was found not to meet the dependency requirements of the Act and was determined not to be the stepchild of the wage earner. Under Section 202(d)(8) of the Act, if the insured individual (wage earner) adopts a child after he becomes entitled to old-age insurance benefits, dependency requirements must be met unless the child is the insured individual's natural child or stepchild. Under the regulations, 20 C.F.R. 404.357, to qualify as a stepchild, the parent of the child and the insured individual must have married after the child was born. The claimants appealed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. The Secretary's decision was sustained by the United States District Court. Doris appealed for herself and on behalf of Sarah to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The Court of Appeals reversed the district court and noted that the Social Security Act does not specifically define stepchild and there is no general federal common law relating to family relationships. Since the wage earner Elwood was living in the State of Washington, the court held that Washington law was controlling. Washington law defines stepchild as a "child of the petitioner's spouse who is not a child of the petitioner." Wash. Rev. Code Section 26.32.200(3) (1971). Under this definition, Sarah was held by the court to be Elwood's stepchild and therefore, entitled to child's benefits on Elwood's earnings record. Since Sarah was eligible for child's benefits, Doris was held to be eligible for wife's benefits because she had Sarah in her care. 42 U.S.C. 402(b)(1)(B).
Although the term stepchild is not defined in the Social Security Act, as provided in 20 C.F.R. 404.357, SSR 66-11, and SSR 81-28c, the Act has been interpreted by SSA to mean that a person may be eligible for child's benefits as the insured's stepchild only if the child's natural or adopting parent marries the insured after the child's birth.
The decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Hutcheson holds that, since the term stepchild is not specifically defined in the Social Security Act, the definition of stepchild as provided by State law is controlling.
This ruling applies only to cases in which the child resides in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, the Northern Mariana Islands, Alaska, Hawaii, or Guam at the time of the determination or decision at any level of administrative review, i.e., initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge hearing or Appeals Council. SSA will apply the State law of the insured wage earner's domicile at the time the application is filed, or, if the wage earner is dead, the wage earner's domicile at the time of death.
When a case involves the issue of whether or not a person is a stepchild of an insured individual for purposes of Section 202(d)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 402(d)(1), the definition of "stepchild" as provided by State law rather than the Social Security regulation will be controlling, consistent with the Hutcheson decision.
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