AR 96-1 (6)
EFFECTIVE/PUBLICATION DATE: 6/3/96
Acquiescence Ruling 96-1(6)
AR 96-1(6): DeSonier v. Sullivan, 906 F.2d 228 (6th Cir. 1990) -- Method of Application of State Intestate Succession Law in Determining Entitlement to Child's Benefits -- Title II of the Social Security Act.
Whether, for purposes of determining a child's status under section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act (the Act) , the Social Security Administration (SSA) must apply the State law of intestate succession in effect at the time of SSA's determination, rather than the law in effect at the time of the worker's death, and whether SSA must apply changes in State intestacy law in the same manner as State courts would apply the changes.
Section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 416(h)(2)(A)); 20 CFR 404.354(b).
Sixth (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee)
DeSonier v. Sullivan, 906 F.2d 228 (6th Cir. 1990)
Applicability of Ruling:
This Ruling applies to determinations or decisions at all administrative levels (i.e., initial, reconsideration, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing or Appeals Council).
Description of Case:
Denise DeSonier and Russell Phillis were never married but lived together from September 1977 until July 1979. They first lived together in Florida and then later in Ohio. DeSonier left Phillis when she was pregnant and returned to Michigan where her family lived. Amanda DeSonier was born to the plaintiff on October 31, 1979. DeSonier did not enter a name for Amanda's father on the birth certificate and she never sought court-ordered support from Phillis. DeSonier testified that Phillis had paid her prenatal medical expenses and had purchased a cradle for the baby. Phillis visited DeSonier once after Amanda was born and gave her a check for $155 drawn on a joint bank account they had maintained while living together. However, DeSonier had closed the account after they separated, so the check was not honored. Phillis died on January 29, 1986.
The plaintiff's application for child's benefits on Phillis' earnings record was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels of the administrative review process. After a hearing, an ALJ found that DeSonier and Phillis did not enter into a valid common law marriage while living together in Ohio and that Amanda DeSonier did not qualify as the deceased wage earner's child under any other provision of the Act. The ALJ also considered section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Act, which would allow Amanda to be considered Phillis' child if she would have the same status as a child under the intestate succession law that would be applied by the courts of the State in which Phillis was domiciled at the time of his death. In the decision issued on December 24, 1987, the ALJ recognized that because Phillis lived in Texas when he died the claimant's relationship to the deceased wage earner is determined by applying the laws of Texas. The ALJ considered the Texas intestacy law in existence up to August 27, 1979, the last amendment to Texas law before Phillis' death, and concluded that Amanda DeSonier was not the child of the wage earner under Texas law as required by section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Act.
The plaintiff sought judicial review but did not respond to SSA's motion for summary judgment so the case was submitted on the administrative record. The United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan granted SSA's motion for summary judgment and found that Amanda DeSonier did not qualify for benefits under several provisions of the Act. The plaintiff appealed alleging that she qualified under the Texas law of intestate succession as amended effective September 1, 1987, and that the ALJ should have applied the law of Texas in effect at the time his decision was issued in December 1987. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further remand to SSA with instructions to reconsider the plaintiff's application under current Texas law.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the Ninth Circuit in Owens v. Schweiker, 692 F.2d 80 (9th Cir. 1982) "that in determining an applicant's status under [section] 416(h)(2)(A), the Secretary is required to apply the state intestacy law in effect at the time of his decision rather than at the time of the wage earner's death." The court also adopted the Third Circuit's approach in Morales on Behalf of Morales v. Bowen, 833 F.2d 481 (3d Cir. 1987), "that the Secretary must determine the time at which the state fixes intestate rights and must apply the statute that would be applied by the state's courts."
After reviewing the leading cases on whether Texas courts would retroactively apply amendments to Texas intestacy law that provide "a new or additional method by which an illegitimate child may establish its rights of inheritance from the natural father," the circuit court concluded that Texas courts would have applied the 1987 amendment in determining Amanda DeSonier's inheritance rights.  The court therefore held that SSA erred by not considering the 1987 amendment and that Amanda DeSonier's status under section 216(h)(2)(A) "should have been determined by applying the 1987 amendment."
Statement As To How DeSonier Differs From Social Security Policy
In accordance with section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Act, SSA uses State laws to decide whether a claimant is the child of a deceased worker. Under its regulations (20 CFR 404.354(b)) implementing section 216(h)(2)(A), SSA "look[s] to the laws that were in effect at the time the insured worker died in the State where the insured had his or her permanent home."
The DeSonier court held that SSA is required to apply the State intestacy law in force at the time of SSA's determination or decision in the manner in which it would be applied by State courts.
Explanation of How SSA Will Apply The DeSonier Decision Within The Circuit
This Ruling applies only to cases involving an applicant for child's benefits who resides in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio or Tennessee at the time of the determination or decision at any administrative level, i.e., initial, reconsideration, ALJ hearing or Appeals Council.
In a claim for surviving child's benefits involving section 216(h)(2)(A) of the Act (42 U.S.C. 416(h)(2)(A)), to determine the right of the child to inherit under the intestacy law in the State of the worker's domicile at the time of death, adjudicators must consider all changes in the State law through the time of the determination or decision at any level of administrative review, i.e., initial, reconsideration, ALJ hearing or Appeals Council review, to determine the child's entitlement to benefits. In cases where the State law has changed, SSA must determine at the time of the determination or decision which State laws would be applied by State courts to fix intestate inheritance rights and must apply amendments to State intestacy laws in the same manner as the State courts would apply the changes.
 Under the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-296, effective March 31, 1995, the Social Security Administration (SSA) became an independent agency in the Executive Branch of the United States Government and was provided ultimate responsibility for administering the Social Security programs under title II of the Act. Prior to March 31, 1995, the Secretary of Health and Human Services had such responsibility.
 The court considered the following leading cases: Reed v. Campbell, 476 U.S. 852 (1986) and Henson v. Jarmon, 758 S.W.2d 368 (Tex. Ct. App. 1988).