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McKenzie v. Harris

decided: May 21, 1982.

MCKENZIE, MARY E.
v.
HARRIS, PATRICIA, SECRETARY OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES OF THE UNITED STATES MARY MCKENZIE, APPELLANT



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Before Hunter, Weis and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hunter

Opinion OF THE COURT

The appellant in this case (Mary McKenzie, also known as Mary Williams) seeks surviving children's Social Security insurance benefits ("benefits") for her two children based upon the earnings record of the deceased wage earner, William McKenzie ("the decedent"). A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the ALJ denied appellant's claim on the ground that there was no marriage relationship between appellant and the decedent; thus, the children were not eligible for benefits.*fn1 After the Appeals Council of the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") affirmed the ALJ's decision, appellant filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where appellant and HHS filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The case was referred to a magistrate, who recommended that appellant's motion for summary judgment be granted. The trial court declined to follow that recommendation, denied appellant's motion for summary judgment, and entered summary judgment for HHS. Mary McKenzie has appealed.

Discussion

The parties agree that the two children would be entitled to benefits if the appellant and the decedent were married at the time of his death in late 1971 and if the children were the decedent's children or stepchildren. The criteria for determining whether the appellant and the decedent were married are set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A):

An applicant is the wife, husband, widow, or widower of a fully or currently insured individual for purposes of this subchapter if the courts of the State in which such insured individual is domiciled at the time such applicant files an application, or, if such insured individual is dead, the courts of the State in which he was domiciled at the time of death, ... would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly married at the time such applicant files such application or, if such insured individual is dead, at the time he died.

The criteria for determining whether the claimant's two children are children of the decedent appear in 42 U.S.C. § 416(e):

The term "child" means (1) the child or legally adopted child of an individual, (2) a stepchild who has been such stepchild for not less than one year immediately preceding the day on which application for child's insurance benefits is filed or (if the insured individual is deceased) not less than nine months immediately preceding the day on which such individual died....

In determining whether an individual is a "child" for Social Security purposes, the "Secretary shall apply such law as would be applied in determining the devolution of intestate personal property by the courts of the State in which such insured individual ... was domiciled at the time of his death." 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.354(b) ("To decide your relationship to the insured, we look to the laws of the State ... where the insured had a permanent home when he or she died....").*fn2

The parties agree that Pennsylvania law applies in this case whenever the federal law or regulations call for the application of state law, and that, if the parties were married, it was pursuant to the common law and not pursuant to the marriage licensing statutes.

The first inquiry is whether appellant and the deceased were married. In Pennsylvania, "(cohabitation) of a man and a woman, both of whom are capable of contracting marriage, and a reputation as husband and wife in their community together raise a presumption that the parties have contracted marriage." In re Estate of Garges, 474 Pa. 237, 241, 378 A.2d 307, 309 (1977). Evidence that two persons agreed to be married and agreed that they were married has been held sufficient to establish a common law marriage. Garges, 474 Pa. at 241-42, 378 A.2d at 309; see Gower Estate, 445 Pa. 554, 556, 284 A.2d 742, 743 (1971).

In this case, there was uncontroverted evidence before the ALJ that the applicant lived with the decedent continually from 1962 until his death in 1971. Appendix at 43. The applicant and the decedent introduced each other as husband and wife and were known by friends and many business acquaintances as husband and wife. Appendix at 31, 33-34. Although plaintiff used her maiden name (Mary Williams) professionally, she was known as Mary McKenzie by her friends and relatives. Appendix at 30-31. Appellant and the decedent executed and delivered as husband and wife a mortgage for the purchase of real property. Appendix at 102. Appellant considered herself the decedent's wife. Appendix at 42. The decedent, in his will, left all of his property to appellant, to whom he referred as his "common law wife." Appendix at 105. Finally, in 1962, when they began to live together, appellant and the decedent had the capacity to enter into a marriage with each other. Appendix at 15. This evidence is sufficient to raise the presumption that appellant and the decedent entered into a common law marriage in 1962 when they began to live together.*fn3

There was some evidence before the ALJ which would weigh against the existence of a common law marriage. The decedent checked the "divorced" box in an application for retirement benefits filed in March, 1971. Appendix at 51.*fn4 The birth certificates for the two children involved here did not list the decedent as their father, appendix at 69-72, and the decedent did not affirmatively state on various forms he filled out that he had children. However, evidence relating to appellant's children does not necessarily go to the question of whether or not there was a marriage ...


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