20 CFR 404.1104

SSR 64-41

Where a claimant for window's insurance benefits secured an invalid divorce from the worker, and where, under State law, the principle of estoppel to assert the invalidity of such divorce was not applicable under the facts of the case to actions directly affecting the marital status of the parties, held, the claimant may be found to have the status of widow of the worker under section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Social Security Act for purposes of entitlement to widow's insurance benefits.

The claimant, W, married the worker, R, in 1916 in Pennsylvania. In 1943 they separated and W obtained a divorce from R outside of Pennsylvania. At the time, neither R nor W was domiciled in the jurisdiction which granted the divorce. R died domiciled in Pennsylvania in 1953 and was fully insured for benefit purposes. W attained age 62 in May 1961 and filed application for widow's insurance benefits on R's earnings account, alleging that the divorce was null and void and that her marriage to R remained in effect until his death.

To qualify for widow's insurance benefits a woman must, among other requirements all of which W met, be the widow of the worker, as defined in section 216(h)(1) of the Social Security Act.

Under section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Act, a woman is the widow of a worker for purposes of entitlement to widow's insurance benefits if the courts of the state in which he was domiciled at the time of his death would find that either (1) the worker and she were validly married at that time, or (2) she would have the same status as a widow for sharing in the distribution of his interstate personal property.

Under Pennsylvania law, a divorce granted by a court of another jurisdiction wherein neither party was domiciled is considered invalid. In some cases, however, Pennsylvania's courts will hold that a person who secured an invalid divorce is estopped to assert its invalidity. Under that principle a party who procures an invalid divorce is estopped to deny the validity of that divorce in any proceeding which involves a private claim or demand arising out of the marriage which was the subject of such divorce. The spouse thus estopped may not assert any property rights to the interstate personal property of the other spouse and hence would not qualify as the spouse of the worker under the inheritance test of section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Act. Despite this principle, in situations such as the one in the instant case, Pennsylvania law will not estop such a spouse from asserting the invalidity of the divorce in any subsequent action directly affecting his or her marital status.

In Romanski's Estate, 354 Pa. 261, 47 A.2d 233 (1946), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that a woman who had obtained a concededly invalid Nevada divorce from the decedent could not assert its invalidity (and hence the continuance of her marriage to the decedent) in a probate proceeding for the purpose of sharing in the decedent's interstate estate as his widow. In that case the court discussed the New York cases holding that while a person who has procured an invalid divorce may be estopped to assert its invalidity in actions involving private claims or demands arising out of marriage, such person would not be so estopped in actions directly affecting his or her marital status. The court also indicated therein that such also was generally the law Pennsylvania. As to the latter class of actions the court observed that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had an interest in the marital status of its citizens and the regulation thereof, and that this formed the basis for nonapplicability of estoppel there.

In this case, since the claimant, W, was not estopped to assert the invalidity of her divorce in every type of judicial action, she meets the definition of "widow," as set forth in section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Act, supra. Accordingly, it is held that W has the status of widow of R for the purpose of entitlement to widow's insurance benefits; and since she meets all other requirements she is entitled to such benefits beginning May 1961, the month in which she attained age 62.

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