EFFECTIVE/PUBLICATION DATE: 06/25/92
ACQUIESCENCE RULING 86-19R(11)
AR 86-19R(11): Woodson v. Schweiker, 656 F.2d 1169 (5th Cir. 1981) -- Interpretation of the Deemed Marriage Provision -- Title II of the Social Security Act.
Whether an applicant who cannot establish that she is the legal wife or widow of a worker, can establish entitlement to wife's, widow's or mother's benefits on his earnings record under the provision for deeming a marriage valid set forth in section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. 416(h)(1)(B), where (1) another individual previously has been entitled to benefits on the worker's earnings record under section 202(b), (e) or (g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. 402(b), (e) or (g), but (2) such individual is no longer entitled to benefits.
Section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act (42 U.S.C. 416(h)(1)(B)), as in effect prior to enactment of Public Law 101-508; 20 CFR 404.346(b); Ruling 80-9c
Eleventh (Alabama, Florida, Georgia)
Woodson v. Schweiker, 656 F.2d 1169 (5th Cir. 1981).
APPLICABILITY OF RULING:
- This ruling applies only to entitlement to benefits payable for months prior to January 1991 for determinations or decisions at all administrative levels (i.e., initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge hearing and Appeals Council).
DESCRIPTION OF CASE:
This case arose out of the Secretary's denial of an application for widow's benefits under Title II of the Act. The issue in the case involves the interpretation of section 216(h)(1)(B) of the Act, which provides for the recognition, for benefit purposes, of certain ceremonial marriages entered into in good faith and without knowledge of a legal impediment. Section 216(h)(1)(B) defines the conditions under which a marriage, not valid under applicable State law, "shall be deemed to be a valid marriage" for purposes of establishing that a claimant is the wife, husband, widow or widower of an insured worker in order to be entitled to benefits which depend on the establishment of that status. (Hereinafter, this provision is referred to as the "deemed marriage provision.")
The insured worker, Rushell Woodson, entered into three ceremonial marriages during his lifetime. His first marriage, to Mary Lou Woodson, ended with her death in November 1955, and is not pertinent to the issues in this case. His second marriage, in 1957, was to Ethel Hurd, from whom he separated sometime before 1960. Since there never was a divorce, this marriage continued until Woodson's death. Eliza Woodson, the plaintiff in this case, was his third wife, whom he married in 1966, even though he was still married to Ethel Hurd.
After Rushell Woodson's death on May 25, 1970, Eliza Woodson applied for and was paid the lump sum death payment on his earnings record, on the basis of being his widow, who was living with him at the time of his death. Ethel Hurd remarried in October 1970, and in January 1971, she applied for and became entitled to mother's benefits on the deceased's earnings record, based on her status as his legal widow and having in her care a child (Diane) of the deceased worker who was entitled to benefits on Mr. Woodson's earnings record. Under the circumstances, in this case the widow's remarriage terminated her entitlement to mother's benefits. Since Ethel Hurd had remarried prior to filing her application, she was entitled to mother's benefits only for a 5-month period during the retroactive life of her application which was prior to the remarriage.
In 1975, Eliza Woodson filed an application for widow's benefits on the worker's earnings record. She did not contest the fact that Ethel Hurd was the legal widow, but sought to establish entitlement to benefits on the basis of the deemed marriage provision of the Act. This application initially and on administrative review was denied by the Secretary on the basis that Eliza Woodson could not qualify as a widow under the deemed marriage provision section 216(h)(1)(B) and implementing regulation 20 CFR 404.346(b) due to Ethel Hurd's, the legal widow's, prior period of entitlement to mother's benefits.
Eliza Woodson sought judicial review in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas which affirmed the Secretary's decision. However, upon her further appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the court reversed the decision of the district court and remanded the case to the district court to award widow's benefits to her.
The Court of Appeals held that Ethel Hurd's prior period of entitlement to mother's benefits did not preclude Eliza Woodson from qualifying for widow's benefits on the basis of the deemed marriage provision of section 216(h)(1) of the Act. The court based this conclusion upon its construction of language in subsection (B) of 216(h)(1) which renders the deemed marriage provision inapplicable where another individual "is or has been entitled to a benefit" on the basis of marital relationship to the worker, "and such other person is (or is deemed to be) a wife, widow, husband or widower of such insured individual . . . at the time such applicant files the application . . ."
The court held that the deemed marriage provision was applicable in this case since Ethel Hurd, whose benefits were terminated due to her remarriage, was no longer a widow within the meaning of the Act "at the time" Eliza Woodson filed her application. The court stated that its construction of section 216(h)(1)(B) did not violate the government's interest against "double-dipping" by beneficiaries, since benefits would be paid to a second widow on the earnings record sequentially, not concurrently with benefits to the previously entitled legal widow. The court stressed the fact that the Act has a remedial purpose and must be liberally construed, in stating that "[i]t would be totally inequitable to deny Eliza Woodson survivor benefits in the face of this record and reading the statute as we do." Regarding the facts, the court stressed the worker's long history of insured work, the fact that only $563.00 in benefits had been paid on his earnings record, and the fact the plaintiff's "marriage" to the worker had lasted for several years until his death. The court concluded:
- [G]iven the facts presented here and the Congressional intent, as we perceive it, to permit widows to receive survivor benefits sequentially, we believe that it is illogical to think that Congress intended such sequential payments only if the "deemed" widow is the first to receive benefits.
The court distinguished its holding from the decision of the Second Circuit in Rosenberg v. Richardson, 538 F.2d 487 (2nd Cir. 1976) which, under the terms set forth therein, allowed two widows to be entitled to benefits concurrently. Regarding the Rosenberg case, the Fifth Circuit stated: "Our facts do not require us to reach that point and we do not intimate our thinking until faced with those facts."
STATEMENT AS TO HOW WOODSON DIFFERS FROM SOCIAL SECURITY POLICY:
To establish entitlement to widow's or mother's benefits, an applicant needs to establish that she "is not married." See sections 202(e)(1)(A) and 202(g)(1)(A) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. 404(e)(1)(A) and 402(g)(1)(A); 20 CFR 404.336(e) and 404.340(c). (When widower's benefits are involved, see section 202(f)(1)(A) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. 402(f)(1)(A).) The possibility of re-entitlement is available when the later marriage ends, whether by death, divorce, or annulment, and even if there are multiple later marriages, as long as all the later marriages have ended.
Under SSA's interpretation of the Act, prior to the change mandated by section 5119 of Public Law 101-508, the language of section 216(h)(1)(B) which provided that an applicant may not be entitled to benefits under the deemed marriage provision if another individual "is (or is deemed to be) a wife, widow, husband or widower of such insured individual . . . at the time such applicant files the application . . ." would bar Eliza Woodson's entitlement to widow's benefits. It is SSA's position that the termination of Ethel Hurd's benefits due to her remarriage did not end her status as Woodson's legal widow within the meaning of the Act. Rather, she retained that status and the possibility of becoming entitled to benefits on Woodson's earnings record in the future, if the later marriage should end.
As set forth above, the Court of Appeals in Woodson held that the previously entitled legal widow no longer had the status of a widow within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(B) after termination of her benefits as a widow due to remarriage.
EXPLANATION OF HOW SSA WILL APPLY THE DECISION WITHIN THE CIRCUIT:
This ruling applies only to eligibility for benefits payable for months prior to January 1991 in cases where the applicant seeking to invoke the deemed marriage provision resides in Alabama, Florida, or Georgia at the time of the determination or decision at any administrative level, i.e., initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge hearing, or Appeals Council.
When a claimant seeks to establish her status as the wife or widow of a worker on the basis of the deemed marriage provision and the legal widow was previously entitled, claimant's entitlement will not be barred because the legal widow was previously entitled to wife's, widow's or mother's benefits under section 202(b), (e) or (g) of the Act. This ruling applies equally to claims for husband's, widower's and father's benefits. See footnote 3.
In such cases, the application of the deemed spouse will be adjudicated as though the legal spouse had not been entitled, except that the "deemed spouse" will not be entitled to wife's, widow's or mother's benefits for any months prior to the month after the month in which the former beneficiary's benefits terminated. Once the applicant has become entitled to benefits under the deemed marriage provisions by application of this ruling, her continuing entitlement should be determined in accordance with regular SSA policies and procedures.
 The original Acquiescence Ruling for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' holding in Woodson, issued May 22, 1986, is rescinded and replaced by this revised Acquiescence Ruling to reflect the enactment of section 5119 of Public Law 101-508. Section 5119 of Public Law 101-508 authorizes the payment of benefits to both a legal "spouse" and a deemed "spouse," where "spouse" is defined as a wife, divorced wife, widow, surviving divorced wife, husband, divorced husband, widower, or surviving divorced husband. This change is effective with respect to benefits payable for months after December 1990. Woodson was decided on September 25, 1981, when the States which now comprise the Eleventh Circuit were part of the Fifth Circuit. Under the holding in Bonner v. City of Pritchard, Alabama, 661 F.2d 1206 (11th Cir. 1981), Fifth Circuit decisions issued prior to October 1, 1981 are precedents for the Eleventh Circuit. Accordingly, a Ruling of Acquiescence on Woodson is provided for Eleventh Circuit residents.
 Respectively, the paragraphs of this section set forth the conditions for entitlement for wife's, widow's and mother's insurance benefits.
 This ruling applies equally to an individual seeking to establish entitlement to husband's, widower's or father's benefits by invoking the provisions of section 216(h)(1) of the Act, where another individual previously has been entitled to husband's, widower's or father's benefits under section 202(c), (f) or (g), 42 U.S.C. 402(c), (f) or (g).
 If a person is already entitled to benefits in December 1990 as a spouse, divorced spouse, widow(er), or surviving divorced spouse, he or she does not have to file another application in order to establish entitlement under the amended statute.
 Under the Act, a lump sum payment ($255.00) may be payable upon the death of an insured worker. See section 202(i) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. 402(i). The order of priority for determining who will receive the payment is set forth in current regulations at 20 CFR 404.390-404.395. In pertinent part, the Act and regulations provide that a widow (or widower) living with the worker at the time of death is, on that basis, first in order of priority for receiving the payment. On this point, the regulations were substantively the same when Eliza Woodson filed her claim and received the lump sum payment.
 In Woodson, Ethel Hurd's remarriage was the event which terminated her entitlement to benefits on the worker's account. However, the court's holding is based on the fact her status as a widow within the meaning of section 216(h)(1)(B) has ended, and would apply equally where the former beneficiary's entitlement had terminated for some other reason. Under the Act and regulations, there are certain situations in which a widow's remarriage does not terminate her entitlement to benefits. See 20 CFR 404.337 and 404.341. The Woodson case does not involve a remarriage which comes within the terms of an exception, and this ruling is not applicable to cases which come within the terms of an exception.
 Under SSA's policy, entitlement of a claimant under the deemed marriage provision is possible where the beneficiary previously entitled to wife's, widow's or mother's benefits has died or where the beneficiary's marriage to the insured worker has dissolved by divorce or annulment. The earliest possible month of entitlement for the deemed spouse would be the month of the former beneficiary's death, or, if applicable, dissolution of the marriage to the insured worker. Therefore, in this situation, both SSA policy and circuit law would permit use of the deemed marriage provision to entitle the deemed spouse.