MILLER v. RIBICOFF, 198 F.Supp. 819

Held, the finding of a State probate court that a woman was validly married to a worker at the time of his death is not binding upon the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in a claim for benefits under title II of the Social Security Act.

In this case, the United States district Court for the Eastern District of Michigan affirmed the decision of the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare that the plaintiff was not the wife, and her son was not the child, of the deceased worker for purposes of entitlement to social security benefits, even though a State probate court, in a proceeding for the "determination" of the decedent's heirs, to which the Secretary was not a party, had held the contrary. Such a State court holding is not binding on the Secretary.

The worker had ceremonially married his first wife in September 1936. They separated in 1939. Neither party obtained a divorce, and the first wife is still living. The events above took place in Georgia where both parties were domiciled. The worker and the plaintiff began living together as husband and wife in Florida during 1942. In 1946, the worker and the plaintiff moved to Michigan, where a son was born to them and where they were living together as man and wife when the worker died in 1958.

The plaintiff filed application on the worker's earnings record for mother's insurance benefits for herself and child's insurance benefits for her son, and alleged that the worker's first marriage was void because he was under age 17 at the time of that marriage, and that she was the worker's widow and her son was his child, as required by sections 202(g) and (d) and 216(h) of the Act for entitlement to the benefits claimed. In support of her claim, she obtained and submitted in evidence a "determination of heirs" order by a Probate Court in Michigan, declaring that she was the worker's widow and her son his legitimate child and that she and her son were his heirs, based on the following findings: The worker was under age 17 at the time of his first marriage, and he did not ratify this marriage after he became of legal age to contract marriage. Hence, under applicable Georgia law, his first marriage was void; the worker and the plaintiff established a valid and binding common-law marriage in 1946 which continued in effect until the worker died.

The Secretary disallowed the claims, after having found, on the basis of all evidence received, as follows: The worker was over age 17 when he married his first wife; that first marriage was valid and continued in effect until the worker's death. His purported common-law marriage to the plaintiff was therefore void (as bigamous) and she did not have the status of his widow, nor did her son have the status of his child, under the law of Michigan, the State of the worker's domicile at the time of his death.

The Federal court noted that entitlement to the benefits claimed depends upon the worker's age when he married his first wife. The court concluded that the Secretary's decision was supported by substantial evidence, and that it must be affirmed, unless the Secretary was found, on the issue of whether the plaintiff was validly married to the worker, by the contrary finding of the State Probate Court.

On this question, the Court held that the Secretary was required by section 205(g) of the Act to make a determination based on all the evidence, and was not bound by the findings of the Probate Court. This, it held, was particularly true since the Secretary was not a party to the Probate Court proceedings. In support of its holding that the Secretary was not bound by the determination of heirship in favor of the plaintiff and her son, the court cited Martin v. Ribicoff, 195 F.Supp. 761 at page 769, and pointed out that in the latter case, "it was the Court of Record of Tennessee involved, which would be even stronger than a holding of any Probate Court in the State of Michigan, which is not a court of record." See also Marek v. Flemming, 192 F.Supp. 528, 533 (S.D. Texas 1961); judgment vacated on other grounds, 295 F.2d 691 (5th Cir., 1961). The court in that decision also considered the effect to be accorded a State probate court decree in determining a relationship issue for title II purposes.

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