SSR 72-51: SECTIONS 202(b) AND 216(h)(1)(A) (42 U.S.C. 402(b) and 416(h)(1)(A)). -- RELATIONSHIP -- VALIDITY OF DIVORCE -- DOMICILE

20 CFR 404.314(a) and 404.1103(b)

SSR 72-51

Where beneficiary for title II benefits obtained a final decree of divorce in 1964 in State of West Virginia, a State in which neither spouse was domiciled, but whose law required that at least one party must be a resident (i.e., a domiciliary) of the State in order for court to acquire jurisdiction of marital status for purpose of granting divorce, held, a divorce granted by a West Virginia court which lacked jurisdiction is absolutely void rather than voidable; therefore, reinstatement of wife's insurance benefits from the month of purported divorce is proper.

R, the worker, and W, his wife, were married in Florida in 1946. They lived together in that State until 1962, when R left for Kansas and did not thereafter correspond with W. She later learned that R had gone to West Virginia where be became entitled to disability insurance benefits and, effective October 1963, W began receiving wife's insurance benefits in Florida.

In July 1964, without W's knowledge, R initiated divorce proceedings against her in the State of West Virginia. A divorce was granted in October 1964 and the Social Security Administration was so advised by R in the following month. However, it appears that W was not advised of the divorce action by R or by the court (as required by the West Virginia code, sections 48-2-26 and 48-2-27), but first became aware of it upon receipt of a termination of benefit notice from the Veterans Administration dated December 17, 1964. She advised the Social Security Administration of her receipt of this notice. Her wife's insurance benefits under the Social Security Act were terminated in January 1965 and W was informed that because incorrect payments were made to her following the divorce, she should refund the amount of the overpayment. W then sought to have the divorce set aside.

In September 1965, pursuant to W's request to have the divorce vacated, the judge who granted the divorce advised that through error, notice of the divorce had not been sent her and therefore that she could pursue the matter further. In September 1968, W requested reconsideration of the determination that her entitlement to wife's benefits had ended with the month of October 1964. In October 1969 the court set aside as void the divorce decree of October 1964 on the basis that R failed to meet the residence requirements at the time he brought suit for divorce and had, in effect, practiced a fraud upon the court.

The issue to be resolved is whether W continued to be entitled to benefits from October 1964, when the worker obtained a decree of divorce, until October 1969, when the court vacated the decree. The specific issue is whether the divorce court in West Virginia had jurisdiction over the subject matter when it rendered the decree.

West Virginia Code, section 48-2-8, as pertinent here, provides:

No suit for divorce shall be maintainable:

* * * * * * *

(c) If the cause for divorce is other than adultery, unless one of the parties has, since the cause of action arose, become an actual bona fide resident of this State and has continued so to be for at least two years next preceding the commencement of suit, and, in addition, * * *. (Emphasis supplied.)

It is well established in West Virginia that jurisdiction of its courts to entertain suits for divorce exists merely by virtue of the statute which confers such jurisdiction. State v. Knapp, 105 S.E. 2d 569, 573 (W.Va., 1958); Cobb v. Cobb, 113 S.E. 2d 193, 194 (W.Va., 1960). The residence requirements are mandatory. See White v. White, 146 S.E. 376 (W.Va., 1929); Tate v. Tate, 142 S.E. 2d 751, 754 (W.Va., 1965). (Note, the court defines the word "resident" within divorce statutes as synonymous with domicile.)

The requirements of divorce statutes as to residence are jurisdictional and if it appears that the plaintiff suing for divorce did not satisfy such requirements, the judicial action taken would have no legal effect. See Morgan v. Vest, 24 S.E. 2d 329 W.Va., 1943); Cobb v. Cobb, supra, at 197. In Cobb the court held inter alia that a court's lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter of a suit need not be raised in any particular manner. When the facts disclose that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case will be dismissed and the prior decree may be set aside as void. Morgan, supra, indicates that a decree rendered by a court lacking subject matter jurisdiction is "void," rather than voidable.

Under West Virginia law, at least one party must be a resident of the State in order for a court to acquire jurisdiction of marital status for the purpose of granting a divorce, and a divorce granted by such a court which lacked jurisdiction is absolutely void. Since neither party met the residence requirement, the State court lacked jurisdiction to grant a valid divorce.

Accordingly, it is held that the decree of divorce granted October 1964 was void for lack of jurisdiction; therefore, W's marriage to the worker continued from its inception, there was no overpayment of benefits, and W is entitled to reinstatement of her wife's insurance benefits effective October 1964.

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