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Chlystek v. Califano

decided: June 7, 1979.



Before Adams, Hunter and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hunter


Helen Chlystek appeals from the judgment of the district court, affirming the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration (SSA), which denied her widow's benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 (1976) (Subchapter II Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Benefits). The district court held that under Pennsylvania law, the claimant was not legally married to Adam Chlystek, the deceased wage earner, at the time of his death and therefore is not entitled to receive widow's benefits. We reverse.


The facts are uncontested. Adam Chlystek, the wage earner, married Cecilia Nicklas in 1927. In 1939 Helen Chlystek, the claimant here, and the wage earner began living together. On October 31, 1944 Cecilia Nicklas Chlystek divorced the wage earner on the ground of adultery. The claimant, then Helen Ondrako, was named in the divorce decree as the corespondent. The decree declared, pursuant to the Pennsylvania paramour statute, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 48, § 169 (Purdon Supp.1978), that Adam Chlystek and Helen Ondrako (Chlystek) were prohibited from marrying during the lifetime of Cecilia Nicklas Chlystek. App. at 156. The claimant and the wage earner continued to live together until the death of the wage earner on July 25, 1976. During that time, they held themselves out as man and wife, but did not go through a ceremonial marriage either in Pennsylvania or in any other jurisdiction.*fn1

Helen Chlystek first filed for social security benefits as the wife of the wage earner in 1971. That application and a second application filed in 1973 were denied because the Secretary determined that under Pennsylvania law Helen Chlystek was not married to Adam Chlystek. Following these determinations, the Chlysteks filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to compel the Register of Wills for Allegheny County to issue them a marriage license. They further sought a judgment declaring the Pennsylvania paramour statute to be an unconstitutional impediment to the right to marry. The district court dismissed the suit, finding no substantial federal question. This court vacated the district court judgment. Chlystek v. Kane, 529 F.2d 511 (3d Cir. 1975) (unpublished opinion). On remand the district court again dismissed the suit, 412 F. Supp. 20 (W.D.Pa.1976), and this court again reversed, instructing the lower court to address the federal constitutional issue. 540 F.2d 171 (3d Cir. 1976). Shortly before this court's second decision was filed, Adam Chlystek died. Cecilia Nicklas Chlystek was still living.

Helen Chlystek then filed a claim for widow's insurance benefits. After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge denied the claim. The Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. The claimant appealed to the district court, which affirmed the administrative determination.


The sole question presented is whether Helen Chlystek is the "widow" of Adam Chlystek for the purpose of receiving benefits under the Social Security Act. The district court noted that under the Pennsylvania paramour statute, Adam and Helen Chlystek were precluded from marrying during the lifetime of Adam Chlystek's first wife. Therefore, the court held that the claimant could not be the legal "widow" of the wage earner. The statute provides:

The husband or wife, who shall have been guilty of the crime of adultery, shall not marry the person with whom the said crime was committed, during the life of the former wife or husband: but nothing herein contained shall be construed to extend to or affect or render other than legitimate any children born of the body of the wife during coverture.

Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 48, § 169 (Purdon Supp.1978). Despite its language, the statute has been interpreted as not requiring that the paramour be found guilty of adultery in a criminal proceeding; rather, an adjudication of adultery in a divorce proceeding is sufficient. In re Lenherr's Estate, 455 Pa. 225, 228-29, 314 A.2d 255, 257 (1974); Kalmbacher v. Kalmbacher, 63 Pa.D. & C. 195, 202 (1945).

The applicable section of the Social Security Act provides: "The widow (as defined in section 416(c) of this title) . . . of an individual who died a fully insured individual, if such widow . . . (meets certain requirements) shall be entitled to a widow's insurance benefit . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 402(e) (1). In determining family status, Congress intended the Secretary to apply state law:

An applicant is the . . . widow . . . of a fully or currently insured individual for the purposes of this subchapter if the courts of the State in which such insured individual (was) domiciled . . . at the time of death . . . would find that such applicant and ...

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