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Huff v. Director

filed: November 9, 1994.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil Action No. 92-04978).

Present: Becker, Hutchinson and Cowen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hutchinson


HUTCHINSON, Circuit Judge.

Appellant, Ethel R. Leecan ("Mrs. Leecan"), appeals a declaratory judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in favor of appellee, Clifford Irene Huff ("Huff"). This district court's judgment declared that Huff was the legal spouse of William N. Leecan ("Mr. Leecan" or "the decedent") at the time of his death. Both women claimed entitlement to decedent's federal employee survivor benefits as his surviving spouse. This case arose when the Director of the United States Office of Personnel Management ("USOPM") requested both claimants to file this action asking the district court to judicially determine who was Mr. Leecan's spouse at the time of his death.

For purposes of determining who is a spouse entitled to survivors' benefits, USOPM looks to applicable state law. It will apply the law of the state with the most significant interest in the marital status of the employee. The only two states whose law could apply to the dispute between Mrs. Leecan and Huff are Pennsylvania and Texas. We believe that Pennsylvania law would control in this case, as it has the greater interest in the marital status of the now deceased government employee. The district court did not do a choice of laws analysis but concluded instead that the outcome would be the same under either Texas or Pennsylvania law. It then looked to Pennsylvania case law and held that Huff was the legal spouse of the decedent at the time of Mr. Leecan's death absent proof of divorce or annulment of his marriage to her.

We think that the district court erred in analyzing Pennsylvania law and concluding that Pennsylvania has an absolutely inflexible rule that a second marriage is always invalid in the absence of strict proof of a divorce decree or annulment of the first marriage. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically instructed courts applying that state's domestic relations law to perform a balancing test by weighing the evidence in the record to determine which of two presumptions, one in favor of continuation of the first marriage and the other in favor of the validity of the second marriage, is more easily sustained by the evidence. Concluding that the second presumption could never apply in the absence of strict formal proof of termination of the first marriage, the district court failed to do this. Therefore, we will remand this case to the district court so that it can properly balance the presumption in favor of the first marriage against the one favoring the second. In adjusting that balance, we think no mechanical rule will suffice. Instead, we think the court should consider the conduct of both parties and their respective contributions to the stability of the family each chose to support or deny in light of the value our society attributes to traditional families and evolving conditions of family life in this nation. On remand, we also think the district court should make an express finding as to when and how Huff first learned of the decedent's marriage to Mrs. Leecan and the reasons for her lack of curiosity for twenty-eight years about the man she now claims as her husband.


Huff and the decedent were married in 1956 in Victoria County, Texas.*fn1 Shortly thereafter, they moved to Philadelphia. They had no children together. In 1961, they separated and Huff returned to Victoria County, Texas. Huff continued her residence there until 1964 when she moved to Houston in Harris County, Texas. The decedent continued to live in Philadelphia. In 1962, Huff commenced divorce proceedings against the decedent in Victoria County, Texas. The action was dismissed for lack of prosecution in 1964. A record search of Victoria and Harris Counties, Texas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania produced no record of divorce or annulment.*fn2

Huff later took up residence with Thomas Bennett and had three children with him, all bearing the surname Bennett. On the children's birth certificates, Huff's name is given as Irene Bennett. Huff never married Bennett.

Following his separation from Huff, the decedent was hired by the United States Post Office in Philadelphia. His employment there entitled his spouse to federal survivor annuity benefits. On November 8, 1967, the decedent completed his death benefit form naming Ethel Leecan as his wife. Three days later, on November 11, 1967, the decedent and Ethel Leecan, after obtaining a Pennsylvania marriage license, were married.*fn3 The decedent, in applying for the marriage license, declared that he had never been married before. Following their marriage, the decedent and Mrs. Leecan held themselves out as husband and wife, bought property together and had two children together.*fn4 Decedent died in an automobile accident in June of 1971. Later that same year Mrs. Leecan began collecting survivors' benefits as his spouse. Not until about eighteen years later, in 1989, did Huff petition the USOPM to award her any survivors' benefits due Mr. Leecan's spouse.*fn5 Thus, Huff and Mrs. Leecan now both claim entitlement to benefits as the legal spouse decedent at the time of his death. Initially, USOPM awarded Huff a retroactive payment of $58,819.20 and ordered Mrs. Leecan to repay the benefits she had received over the eighteen years that preceded Huff's petition, but USOPM reversed this decision after deciding that Huff had waited too long to challenge decedent's marriage to Mrs. Leecan and ordered Huff to repay the retroactive award.

At the urging of USOPM, both parties filed an action in the district court seeking a declaratory judgment determining who was the legal spouse of the decedent under applicable state law at the time of his death. USOPM suspended all benefit payments and efforts to collect repayments pending the district court's decision.

Huff filed a motion for summary judgment which the district court denied, holding that there was sufficient evidence at the summary judgment stage to overcome Pennsylvania's presumption of favoring the continued existence of the first marriage. This evidence included testimony that the decedent believed he had been divorced, that he told others he had obtained a divorce from Huff, that he had children with Mrs. Leecan, and that Huff never attempted to contact the decedent until eighteen years after the decedent's death and almost twenty-eight years after her separation from him.

Later, at a bench trial, other evidence showed the decedent told Mrs. Leecan he had been married previously but that this marriage had been annulled and decedent's half-brother also testified that the decedent had told him before he married Mrs. Leecan that his marriage to Huff had been annulled. He ...

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