United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
MCCAFFERTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Susan Branch seeks judicial review of the decision of the
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,
denying her application for widow's survivor benefits
under 42 U.S.C. § 402(e). Branch argues, among other
things, that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) was not supported by substantial
evidence. For the reasons that follow, the court affirms the
decision of the Acting Commissioner.
reviewing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner in a
social security case, the court “is limited to
determining whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal
standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of
evidence.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35
(1st Cir. 1999); see also Seavey v. Barnhart, 276
F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). The court defers to the ALJ's
factual findings as long as they are supported by substantial
evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Fischer v.
Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 2016). Questions of
law presented by the ALJ's decision are reviewed de novo.
See Fischer, 831 F.3d at 34.
following facts are taken from the parties' joint
statement of facts (doc. no. 13), unless otherwise noted. In
April 2013, Branch applied for widow's survivor benefits
on the basis of her marriage to Jonathan Branch. Branch
stated in her application for benefits that they had been
married from April 20, 2003 to July 6, 2003, when Jonathan
passed away. Her application was denied on the ground that
she had not been married for the minimum nine months required
to qualify for such benefits. See 42 U.S.C. §
416(c)(1)(E); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(1).
requested reconsideration, arguing that she had a marriage of
the requisite length because she and Jonathan had been in a
common law marriage prior to their legal marriage.
Branch's request for reconsideration was denied, after
which she sought a hearing before an ALJ.
held a hearing in September 2014. Branch was represented by
counsel. The ALJ examined whether Branch could qualify for
benefits on the basis of her 2003 legal marriage. The ALJ
also considered whether Branch's relationship with
Jonathan prior to 2003 qualified as a common law marriage
under New Hampshire law. Finally, the ALJ considered another
avenue for benefits: a surviving spouse is entitled to
benefits, even if the marriage was shorter than nine months,
where “[a]t the time of [the] marriage the insured was
reasonably expected to live for 9 months, and the death of
the insured was accidental.” 20 C.F.R. §
hearing, Branch testified regarding her claim that she and
Jonathan had been in a common law marriage long before their
legal marriage in 2003. Branch and Jonathan began living
together in 1985. Jonathan had three boys from a previous
marriage, and Branch had two. Branch and her sons maintained
a separate living space in one unit of a duplex, and Jonathan
and his sons maintained a separate living space in the other
unit. At some point after moving in, Branch and Jonathan
installed a door between the units so they could move between
their units. Branch testified that this arrangement allowed
them to live together as a family while also ensuring that
the children had their own private spaces.
also explained the reasons for their legal marriage in 2003.
Initially, they decided not to marry because they were both
self-employed and believed that the “Marriage Penalty
Act” would negatively affect their finances. When
Jonathan's cancer progressed in March 2003, Jonathan told
Branch that he wanted her to have his name and, concerned
about her finances, wanted to ensure that she would be
entitled to Social Security benefits. They thus decided to
marry in April 2003, and Branch changed her surname from
Curter to Branch.
submitted other evidence for the ALJ's consideration. In
one letter, Jamie Branch-one of Jonathan's sons-states
that everyone “moved about as a single family” in
the duplex, and that Branch and Jonathan shared a bedroom.
Admin. Rec. at 75. In another letter, a family friend attests
that Branch and Jonathan had a “loving
relationship” and that they maintained “unique
living arrangements.” Id. at 77. Other
documentary evidence of note includes Jonathan's 2002
will, in which he refers to Branch as his
“fiancée.” Id. at 79.
denied Branch's application for benefits. In order to
have a common law marriage under New Hampshire law, the
parties must have, for the three years preceding one
partner's death, “(1) cohabited; (2) acknowledged
each other as husband and wife; and (3) [been] generally
reputed to be husband and wife in their community.”
In re Estate of Bourassa, 949 A.2d 704, 706 (N.H.
2008). Regarding acknowledgement, the ALJ determined that
Branch “knew she was not married” prior to the
legal marriage in 2003. Admin. Rec. at 15. In support, the
ALJ noted that Branch and Jonathan had explicitly declined to
marry to avoid certain tax penalties, and that Jonathan had
referred to Branch as his fiancée in his will. The ALJ
also appears to have considered the requirement of general
reputation: the ALJ noted that the family friend, who had
described the loving relationship between Jonathan and
Branch, “did not mention that the two held themselves
out as husband and wife.” Id.
on his review of the evidence, the ALJ made the following
findings: (1) Branch “formally married” Jonathan
on April 1, 2003; (2) the marriage did not last nine months
prior to Jonathan's death in July 2003; (3)
Jonathan's death was not accidental and he was not
expected to live as long as nine months at the time of the
marriage; and (4) Branch and Jonathan's relationship
prior to their legal marriage did not constitute a common law
marriage under New Hampshire law.
requested review from the Appeals Council. After the Appeals
Council denied the ...