BOWEN V. OWENS, 476 U. S. 340 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bowen v. Owens, 476 U.S. 340 (1986)

Bowen v. Owens

No. 84-1905

Argued February 26, 1986

Decided May 19, 1986

476 U.S. 340


Certain provisions of the Social Security Act in effect between 1979 and 1983 authorized payment of survivor's benefits to a wage-earner's widowed spouse who remarried after age 60, but not to a similarly situated divorced widowed spouse. After being administratively denied survivor's benefits under these provisions because she had remarried, appellee divorced widow filed a class action in Federal District Court, challenging the constitutionality of the provisions. The court upheld the challenge, reasoning that, because Congress in 1977 had chosen to treat surviving divorced spouses and widowed spouses in the same manner upon the wage-earner's death, there was no logical basis for distinguishing between the two classes of individuals upon their subsequent remarriage.

Held: The provisions in question did not violate the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 476 U. S. 345-350.

(a) When Congress decided to create some exceptions to the rule under which widowed spouses would lose their entitlement to survivor's benefits upon remarriage, it was not required to take an all-or-nothing approach, but instead had valid reasons for proceeding more cautiously. Faced with concerns about the increase in the benefits that would ensue if the remarriage rule were completely eliminated, Congress reasonably could decide to concentrate limited funds where the need was likely to be greatest. Pp. 476 U. S. 346-348.

(b) Because divorced widowed spouses did not enter into remarriage with the same level of dependency on the wage-earner's account as widows or widowers, it was rational for Congress to treat these groups differently after remarriage. Any inference that, because both divorced widowed spouses and widowed spouses were entitled to survivor's benefits, Congress viewed the groups as equally dependent on the wage-earner, is belied by the history and provisions of the Act. Pp. 476 U. S. 348-350.

Reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL,

Page 476 U. S. 341

J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 476 U. S. 350. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 476 U. S. 364.

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