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Renshaw v. Heckler

March 31, 1986


Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York affirming a decision of the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that plaintiff was not the legal widow of the decedent and therefore not entitled to widow's insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, and dismissing plaintiff's complaint. Reversed and remanded.

Author: Pratt

PRATT, Circuit Judge :

This appeal presents a single question: did the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the District Court err in determining that, under Pennsylvania law, plaintiff Edith L. Renshaw was not the common-law wife of the decedent Albert Renshaw, and therefore not entitled to widow's insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Finding that Edith and Albert Renshaw had entered into a valid common-law marriage under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we reverse the decision of the district court and remand to the Secretary for action consistent with this opinion.


After a brief courtship following their respective divorces from other individuals, Albert and Edith Renshaw began living together on July 5, 1958 in Baltimore, Maryland. Although the couple did not have a formal ceremonial marriage, Mrs. Renshaw testified that when she and Mr. Renshaw began living together they agreed to live "just as though [they] were married" and that they considered themselves "husband and wife". The evidence supports her assertion.

Edith immediately adopted the last name Renshaw and a short time later, changed the name on her social security card-the only identification she had at that time-to reflect her new status. The couple told friends and relatives that they had been married, and introduced each other to relatives, friends, and acquaintances as husband and wife.

Mr. Renshaw gave Mrs. Renshaw a wedding band shortly after they began to live together, and throughout the 21 years they lived together they celebrated July 5 as their marriage anniversary. The couple never separated or broke up, and Mrs. Renshaw testified that neither over had relationships with others during this time. Moreover, the couple filed joint tax returns as husband and wife, and Mr. Renshaw listed Mrs. Renshaw as his wife and beneficiary on his life insurance policy.

Immediately after their marriage the Renshaws lived in Maryland for several months. After that, they moved to Buffalo, New York, where they lived for the next twenty years. During this time, the couple had one child, Lorna Gail Renshaw.

On approximately eight occasions between 1968 and 1975, the Renshaws drove to Virginia and North Carolina to visit relatives. Since the visits required a lengthy drive each way, the Renshaws always spent the night at the Port Motel in Port Treverton, Pennsylvania, a state that recognizes common-law marriage. Their daughter always accompanied them on these trips; on occasions when Mr. Renshaw's mother was in Buffalo, she also traveled with them.

It is unknown whether the couple signed the register as husband and wife since the motel records were unavailable and since Mrs. Renshaw never accompanied her husband to the motel office when he signed the guest register. However, she did recall hearing him make reservations by phone and specifying the date and the fact that he would be there with himself, his wife, and his daughter.

While at the motel in Pennsylvania, the Renshaws would check into their room, eat dinner at the restaurant, walk around the motel grounds, retire for the evening, and continue their journal the next morning. With the exception of a coincidental meeting with her brother, who believed that she and Mr. Renshaw were legally married, the couple never met anyone they knew while in Pennsylvania.


Section 202(e) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 402(e), provides that a widow of an individual who died while fully insured is entitled to widow's insurance benefits, if she meets certain other conditions not in issue on this appeal. Section 216(h)(1)(A) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A), provides that an applicant is the widow of an insured individual if the courts of the state in which the insured individual was domiciled at the time of his death would find that the applicant and insured individual were validly married at the time of his death. Since Mr. and Mrs. Renshaw were domiciled in New York at the time of his death, New York law governs her status as a widow.

Although New York does not itself recognize common-law marriages, a common-law marriage contracted in another state will be recognized as valid in New York if it is valid where contracted. Mott v. Duncan Petroleum Trans., 51 N.Y.2d 289, 292, 434 N.Y.S.2d 155, 157, 414 N.E.2d 657 (1980). The law to be applied in determining the validity of such a marriage is the law of the state in which the marriage occurred. Id. Since plaintiff claims that she contracted a common-law marriage with ...

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