20 CFR 410.210 and 410.211

SSR 76-15

The claimant was receiving monthly widow's benefit under the Black Lung program. These payments were terminated when she remarried. Subsequently this marriage was annulled by the Virginia Courts. The decree neither granted permanent alimony nor reserved the right to grant it in the future. Held, such annulment decree rendered the marriage void ab initio, and the claimant's eligibility was reestablished from the month the decree was entered.

A question has been raised as to whether the claimant's remarriage was void ab initio under the law of Virginia.

The facts are as follows: the monthly Black Lung Benefits of the wage earner's widow were terminated because of her remarriage in Virginia. On December 10. 1974, the Circuit Court in Virginia, declared claimant's marriage "now annulled on the grounds that complainant and defendant have not cohabited as man and wife, and that the aforesaid marriage has not been consummated." The decree neither granted permanent alimony nor reserved the right to the Court to grant permanent alimony in the future.

No Virginia statute provides for annulment solely on the grounds stated in the annulment decree. Cf section 20-45 of the Code of Virginia (1973 Cum.Supp.).[1] Moreover, while a court of equity may grant an annulment on non-statutory grounds, Pretlow v. Pretlow, 177 Va. 524, 14 S.E.2d 381, 387 (1941), courts cannot annul marriage in the absence of fraud, duress, or other improper elements affecting the marriage contract. Jacobs v. Jacobs 184 Va. 281, 35 S.E.2d 119, 126 (1945). To enter into a marriage contract with a preconceived intention not to perform natural incidents of the marriage relation is fraud. Pretlow v. Pretlow, supra. The allegation in the annulment decree may have been deemed sufficient to show that defendant never intended that the marriage be consummated and thereby perpetuated a fraud. We are unable to find any statutory provision dealing with the effective date of annulment decrees granted by courts of Virginia on non-statutory grounds.

It seems unlikely that the grounds stated in the decree were intended to allege mental or physical incapacity to consummate the marriage -- the only statutory ground to which the allegations contained in the decree would be relevant. (See section 20-45, Code of Virginia, supra.[2]) Regardless of whether the grounds for claimant's annulment were statutory or non-statutory, the marriage was void ab initio. Pursuant to the opinion of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia in the Pretlow case, supra, a marriage induced by fraud is voidable, and not void. In the absence of any statutory provisions or cases dealing with the effective date of annulments granted by the courts of Virginia on grounds of fraud, the effect of annulment of a voidable marriage is to destroy the marriage ab initio. Also, in Powell v. Celebrezze, 1 Unempl. Ins. Rep. ¶ 15,055 (1962-1963 transfer binder), the court noted that Virginia is a common law state and has recognized the common law doctrine of "relation back," in which a marriage that is voidable for causes that the statutes do not cover is void ab initio when annulled.

In Powell, the court held that the annulment of claimant's remarriage granted pursuant to section 20-45, Code of Virginia 1950,[3] was effective ab initio upon issuance of the annulment decree and that claimant was accordingly entitled to reinstatement of benefits terminated by the annulled remarriage. The court reached this holding despite the language of the statute, which is repeated in the statute as amended in 1964 and 1968:

Marriages which are void from time so declared or from time of conviction . . . shall . . . be void from the time they shall be so declared by a decree of divorce or nullity, or from the time of the conviction of the parties. . . .

The court held that the wording of a statute to the effect that a marriage maybe void from the time declared by the decree does not change the common law doctrine of "relation back" and does not make the marriage in question valid from the date it was contracted until the decree of nullity was entered.

The Social Security Administration has taken the view that, except where the annulling court has the power to grant claimant permanent alimony in the annulment action, annulments granted pursuant to this and similar statutes should be considered operative ab initio. (See Social Security Ruling 65-19, CB 1965, P. 43.)

Thus, whether the claimant's annulment was granted on statutory or non-statutory grounds, the marriage is void ab initio. Based upon Virginia authority, the reservation of power must be explicitly stated in the annulment decree.

Since the decree neither granted permanent alimony nor reserved the right to the court to grant permanent alimony in the future, claimant's eligibility was reestablished from the month the decree was entered. Claimant's benefits may be reinstated, and claimant should not be required to reapply.

[1] This statutory provision was repealed by the Virginia legislature in 1975, Acts, 1975, chapter 644, and was replaced by a new section 20-45.1 (1975). The statutory revision would not change the analysis or the outcome of this Social Security Ruling under the given facts.

[2] See n.1, supra.

[3] See n. 1, supra.

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