Common Law Marriage and Widow’s Social Security Benefits - Melvin
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Common Law Marriage and Widow’s Social Security Benefits

by Melvin Cook

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20 C.F.R. Section 404.726 provides that Social Security recognizes common law marriages if they are valid under certain State laws. Common law marriages are marriages that are recognized by the law of a state even though no formal marriage ceremony was conducted.

Utah recognizes common law marriage; however, one must go through certain steps to have it judicially or administratively recognized. Utah Code Section 30-1-4.5 provides that a marriage that is not solemnized shall be legal and valid if established by a court or administrative order during the relationship, or within one year after termination of the relationship.

The common law marriage that is sought to be recognized must arise out of a contract between alleged spouses who are of legal age and capable of giving consent; are legally capable of entering into a marriage; have cohabitated; have mutually assumed the rights, duties, and obligations of a marriage; and, have held themselves out as husband and wife and have acquired a uniform reputation as husband and wife.

The proof preferred by the Social Security Administration of a common law marriage is a signed statement by both spouses if they are alive, as well as a signed statement by two of their blood relatives. If only one spouse is alive, the preferred proof is a signed statement of the living spouse and the signed statements of two of the blood relatives of the deceased spouse. If neither spouse is alive, the preferred proof is the signed statements of one blood relative of each deceased spouse.

The signed statement should explain the reasons why the person believes the alleged spouses were married. If a statement from a blood relative cannot be obtained, Social Security will look at a statement from another person. The other way to prove the common law marriage is through other “convincing evidence.”

Some states do not recognize common law marriage. In the case of Lynch v. Bowen, 681 F. Supp. 506 (N.D. Ill. 1988), the plaintiff sought to prove that she had a common law marriage to the deceased person she had been living with for many years at the time of her death. However, the State of Illinois did not recognize common-law marriage.

Ms. Lynch therefore argued that, because she and her alleged spouse had travelled outside the state of Illinois to other states that did recognize common law marriage, that she obtained a common law marriage in those states, which Illinois was bound to recognize. The Social Security Administration did not accept this argument. After exhausting her administrative appeals, Ms. Lynch appeal this decision to the federal district court.

She argued that she and her alleged spouse were unaware that Illinois did not recognize common-law marriage, and therefore, when they travelled to other states that did recognized common-law marriage, they were not doing so for the intent to shop for a more favorable legal forum, or to circumvent Illinois law.

However, the Court found that the parties’ intent was irrelevant. The Court was tasked solely with ascertaining whether or not Illinois law would recognize as valid a common law marriage allegedly contracted by Illinois domiciliaries who traveled for a brief period of time to a state or states that recognized common law marriage. The Court found that it would not. Citing various Illinois cases and statutes, the Court found that Illinois would only recognize common law marriages contracted by citizens of a different state. Thus, the parties’ intent in traveling to a different state was immaterial. The critical question    was whether or not Ms. Lynch and her alleged husband were domiciled in Illinois at the time of the alleged common law marriage in another state (some states recognized common-law marriages even if the couple travels there for only a brief period of time). The undisputed facts showed that they were at all times relevant to the inquiry, domiciled in Illinois. Thus, Ms. Lynch’s claim for widow’s social security benefits was denied.

This case is also set out and adopted in Social Security Ruling (SSR) 90-2c. But, as indicated above, Utah does recognize common law marriage. If you have a common law marriage that needs to be recognized, you may wish to consult an experienced family law attorney.

This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.

Contact a Salt Lake City Attorney Committed to Protecting Your Rights

When it comes the family law and social security disability, each client and case is different. It is also important to select an attorney with the experience, skills and professionalism required to address your legal issues. To learn more, contact the Salt Lake City law offices of Melvin A. Cook and schedule an initial consultation to discuss your case.

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