Bowen v. Owens

LOCATION: Heath Residence

DOCKET NO.: 84-1905
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)

CITATION: 476 US 340 (1986)
ARGUED: Feb 26, 1986
DECIDED: May 19, 1986

Carolyn B. Kuhl - on behalf of the appellant
Gill Deford - on behalf of the appellees

Facts of the case


Media for Bowen v. Owens

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 26, 1986 in Bowen v. Owens

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Bowen, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, against Owens.

Ms. Kuhl, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Carolyn B. Kuhl:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case presents two issues for decision, first, the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Social Security Act in effect between 1977 and 1983.

The provisions at issue permit payment of survivors' benefits to widows and widowers to continue even after they remarry after age 60, but payment of survivors' benefits to surviving divorced spouses ceases upon their marriage even if that event occurs after age 60.

This differing treatment of widowed spouses and divorced spouses is challenged under the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The second issue in the case concerns the propriety of the classification entered by the district court, and this issue requires the Court to consider yet again the requirements of Section 405-G of Title 42, jurisdictional provision for review of Social Security benefit claims.

Before getting into the merits of the argument, I would like to clarify just how the provisions in question work, because the terminology used is not always as illuminating as it could be.

A wage earner is entitled--

Byron R. White:

That's a marvelous understatement.

Carolyn B. Kuhl:

--Thank you, Justice White.

I thought that was almost the hardest part of this case.

A wage earner is entitled to have his or her family receive certain types of benefits based on the wage earner's earnings attempt.

The type of benefits involved here are called survivors benefits, and that means that they are benefits paid to certain members of the wage earner's family because the wage earner has died.

Now, the wage earner's widow or the wage earner's widower receives benefits after the wage earner's death, and they... these benefits are called surviving widowed spouse benefits, and they come rather automatically.

That is, the spouse is presumed to be dependent for purposes of the Act.

If the wage earner, however, was divorced before he or she dies, the wage earner's former spouse receives benefits after the wage earner's death if the marriage between the wage earner and the former spouse lasted at least ten years, and these types of benefits are called surviving divorced spouse benefits.

Although the rule used to be that survivors' benefits terminated upon remarriage of the spouse, and this was called the remarriage rule, in 1977 Congress eliminated this remarriage rule for widowed spouses over the age of 60, but all other survivors' benefits still continued to terminate on remarriage, and this was true not only for divorced spouses' benefits but also for benefits to dependent parents of the wage earner and dependent children of the wage earner.

So, in 1977 Congress made a distinction for purposes of widows and widowers but it still kept in another category not only the divorced spouses but also the dependent children and dependent parents.

There are three basic reasons why the step Congress took in 1977 has a rational basis.

First, Congress has always treated married spouses different from divorced spouses, both because the entire structure of the Act is based on the family unit, and because Congress has assumed that divorced spouses depend less on each other for economic support than do couples who stay married.

It was rational for Congress to recognize these differences between married and divorced spouses on the event of remarriage because--

Harry A. Blackmun:

Ms. Kuhl, you say they have always treated them differently.

Is that correct?

Carolyn B. Kuhl:

--I believe it is, Justice Blackmun, until 1983 when... which is after the--

Harry A. Blackmun:

What about prior to 1977?

Carolyn B. Kuhl:

--Prior to 1977, yes, they were treated differently because initially, of course, widows and widowers... well, widows at least were getting benefits and divorced spouses were not getting benefits at all, and then Congress permitted divorced spouses to get benefits, but that divorced spouses had to be married for 20 years and to meet certain criteria of dependency before they could get benefits.

So, in other words they were treated differently because Congress had a dependency test all along with regard to divorced spouses but it did not have a dependency test with regard to widows and widowers.

To briefly, then, state the second reason why... the second rational basis for Congress's action here, when Congress permitted some divorced spouses to receive benefits, Congress created a situation where there was a potential for two spouses to be receiving... one, a current spouse and one a former spouse, to be receiving benefits at the same time based on the one wage earner's account, and it was--

John Paul Stevens:

May I go back a little?