434 U.S. 47 (1977), 76-860, Califano v. Jobst

Docket Nº:No. 76-860
Citation:434 U.S. 47, 98 S.Ct. 95, 54 L.Ed.2d 228
Party Name:Califano v. Jobst
Case Date:November 08, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

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434 U.S. 47 (1977)

98 S.Ct. 95, 54 L.Ed.2d 228




No. 76-860

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 8, 1977

Argued October 4, 1977




Provisions of the Social Security Act specifying that secondary benefits under the Act received by a disabled dependent child of a covered wage earner shall terminate when the child marries an individual who is not entitled to benefits under the Act, even though that individual is permanently disabled, held not to violate the principle of equality embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 50-58.

(a) The general rule that entitlement to a child's statutory benefits terminates upon marriage is rational. Congress, in lieu of requiring individualized proof of dependency on a case-by-case basis, could assume that marital status is a relevant test of probable dependency, a married person being less likely than an unmarried person to be dependent on his parents for support. Pp. 52-54.

(b) The exception provided for disabled children who marry individuals entitled to benefits under the Act to the general rule that marriage terminates a child's statutory benefits is likewise rational. That exception, which is a reliable indicator of probable hardship, requires no individualized inquiry into degrees of need or periodic review to determine continued entitlement. Moreover, Congress could reasonably take one step to eliminate hardship caused by the general marriage rule without at the same time accomplishing its entire objective. Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483. Pp. 54-58.

368 F.Supp. 909, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether Congress has the power to require that a dependent child's social security benefits terminate upon marriage even though his spouse is permanently disabled. Answering that question in the negative, the District Court held that 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)(D) and 402(d)(5) deprive appellee of property without due process of law. Jobst v. Richardson, 368 F.Supp. 909. We reverse.

Mr. Jobst has been disabled by cerebral palsy since his birth in 1932. He qualified for child's insurance benefits in 1957, several months after his father died. In 1970, he married another cerebral palsy victim. Since his wife was not entitled to benefits under the federal Act,1 the statute required the Secretary to terminate his benefits.2

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[98 S.Ct. 97] Mr. Jobst brought this suit to review the Secretary's action.3 The District Court held that the statute violated the equality principle applicable to the Federal Government by virtue of the Fifth Amendment, Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, because all child's insurance beneficiaries are not treated alike when they marry disabled persons. Beneficiaries who marry other social security beneficiaries continue to receive benefits whereas those who marry nonbeneficiaries lose their benefits permanently. The court held this distinction irrational. 368 F.Supp. at 913.

The Secretary appealed directly to this Court. 28 U.S.C. § 1252. Noting that Mr. Jobst and his wife had become entitled to benefits under a newly enacted statute authorizing supplemental security income for the aged, blind, and disabled,4 this Court remanded the case for reconsideration in the light of that program. Weinberger v. Jobst, 419 U.S. 811.

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The District Court reviewed the new program, concluded that it had no relevance to the issues presented by this case, and reinstated its original judgment. The Secretary again appealed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 429 U.S. 189.

Although the District Court focused on the statutory consequences of a marriage between two disabled persons, the Secretary argues that the relevant statutory classification is much broader. We therefore first describe the statutory scheme, then consider the validity of a general requirement that benefits payable to a wage earner's dependent terminate upon marriage, and finally decide whether such a general requirement is invalidated by an exception limited to marriages between persons who are both receiving benefits.


As originally enacted in 1935, the Social Security Act authorized a monthly benefit for qualified wage earners at least 65 years old and a death benefit payable to the estate of a wage earner who died at an earlier age. 49 Stat. 622-624. In 1939 Congress created secondary benefits for wives, children, widows, and parents of wage earners. See 53 Stat. 1362, 1364-1366. The benefits were intended to provide persons dependent on the wage earner with protection against the economic hardship occasioned by loss of the wage earner's support. Mathews v. De Castro, 429 U.S. 181, 185-186. Generally speaking, therefore, the categories of secondary beneficiaries [98 S.Ct. 98] were defined to include persons who were presumed to be dependent on the wage earner at the time of his death, disability, or retirement.

Specifically, the child's benefit as authorized in 1939 was available only to a child who was unmarried, under 18, and dependent upon the wage earner at the time of his death or retirement. 53 Stat. 1364. Since Mr. Jobst was 23 at the time of his father's death, he would not have been eligible for a child's benefit under the 1939 Act. Under that statute,

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the child's benefit, like the benefits for widows and parents, terminated upon marriage. 53 Stat. 1364-1366.

In 1956, Congress enlarged the class of persons entitled to a child's benefit to include those who, like Mr. Jobst, were under a disability which began before age 18.5 For such a person, the benefit continued beyond the age of 18, but, as with other secondary benefits, it terminated upon marriage.

In 1958, Congress adopted the amendment that created the basis for Mr. Jobst's constitutional attack. The amendment provided that marriage would not terminate a child's disability benefit if the child married a person who was also entitled to benefits under the Act. See 72 Stat. 1030-1031. A similar dispensation was granted to widows, widowers, divorced wives, and parents.6 In each case, the secondary benefit survives a marriage to another beneficiary, but any other marriage -- even to a disabled person unable to provide the beneficiary with support -- is a terminating event unaffected by the 1958 amendment.

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It was the failure of Congress in 1958 to create a larger class of marriages that do not terminate the child's benefit for disabled persons that the District Court found irrational.


The provision challenged in this case is part of a complex statutory scheme designed to administer a trust fund financed, in large part, by taxes levied on the wage earners who are the primary beneficiaries of the fund. The entitlement of any secondary beneficiary is predicated on his or her relationship to a contributing wage earner. If the statutory requirements for eligibility are met, the amount of the benefit is unrelated to the actual need of the beneficiary. See, e.g., Mathews v. De Castro, supra, at 185-186. The statute is designed to provide the wage earner and the dependent members of his family with protection against the hardship occasioned by his loss of earnings; it is not simply a welfare program generally benefiting needy persons. Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. 199, 213-214 (opinion of BRENNAN, J.).

Nor has Congress made actual dependency on the wage earner either a sufficient or a necessary condition of eligibility in every [98 S.Ct. 99] case.7 Instead of requiring individualized proof on a case-by-case basis, Congress has elected to use simple criteria, such as age and marital status, to determine probable dependency.8 A child who is married or over 18 and neither

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disabled nor a student is denied benefits because Congress has assumed that such a child is not normally dependent on his parents. There is no question about the power of Congress to legislate on the basis of such factual assumptions. General rules are essential if a fund of this magnitude is to be administered with a modicum of efficiency, even though such rules inevitably produce seemingly arbitrary consequences in some individual cases. Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749, 776.

Of course, a general rule may not define the benefited class by reference to a distinction which irrationally differentiates between identically situated persons. Differences in race, religion, or political affiliation could not rationally justify a difference in eligibility for social security benefits, for such differences are totally irrelevant to the question whether one person is economically dependent on another. But a distinction between married persons and unmarried persons is of a different character.

Both tradition and common experience support the conclusion that marriage is an event which normally marks an important change in economic status. Traditionally, the event not only creates a new family with attendant new responsibilities, but also modifies the preexisting relationships between the bride and groom and their respective families. Frequently, of course, financial independence and marriage do not go hand in hand. Nevertheless, there can be no question about the validity of the assumption that a married person is less likely to be dependent on his parents for support than one who is unmarried.

Since it was rational for Congress to assume that marital

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status is a relevant test of probable dependency, the general rule which obtained before 1958, terminating all child's benefits when the beneficiary married, satisfied the constitutional test normally applied in cases like this. See Mathews v. De Castro, 429 U.S. at 185; Weinberger v. Salfi, supra, and cases cited at 768-770. That...

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