A Claimant Who Fails To Establish A Valid Common Law Marriage To The Decedent Is Not Entitled To Widow’s Benefits

 

By Francis X. Wickersham, Esq.

 

Brett Cooney (deceased) – Amanda Cerrano v. WCAB (Patterson UTI, Inc.); 1681 C.D. 2013; filed 6/12/14; by Judge Simpson

 

The decedent sustained a traumatic brain injury as a result of a drilling rig accident while working for the employer. The decedent passed away six days following the injury. After the decedent’s death, the employer and the claimant entered into an agreement to pay dependency benefits to the decedent’s two minor children under §307 (1) (b) of the Act. In the agreement, the claimant reserved the right to file a fatal claim petition for widow’s benefits. the claimant did so, but the Workers’ Compensation Judge denied the petition.

 

The claimant was a native of Wyoming and met the decedent in her home town in 2002. The decedent had moved to Wyoming to work in the oil and gas industry. The claimant and the decedent lived together. They combined their income to pay bills. They opened a joint checking account. They bought vehicles together, and the titles to the vehicles were placed in the claimant’s name. They had two children together. Although never formally married, one year before the birth of their first child, the decedent gave the claimant a ring and said to her, “You’re my wife.” The claimant and the decedent also introduced themselves as husband and wife. Later, the decedent, the claimant and their two children moved to Pennsylvania. They continued to introduce themselves as husband and wife.

 

In denying the claim petition, the Judge recognized that the Supreme Court abolished the Doctrine of Common Law Marriage prospectively from the date of a September 17, 2003, decision in the case of PNC Bank Corp. v. WCAB (Stamos), 831 A.2d 1269 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003). In addition, by Act of November 24, 2004, §1103 of the Marriage Law was amended to invalidate common law marriage contracted after January 1, 2005. The Judge concluded that, although the claimant and the decedent exchanged words recognizing they were husband and wife when they lived in Wyoming in 2003, Wyoming did not recognize common law marriage as valid. The claimant and the decedent did not move to Pennsylvania until 2009, after Act 144 abolished common law marriage. Therefore, benefits were denied.

 

On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed. The Commonwealth Court affirmed as well. According to the court, §1103 of Act 144 includes a consideration of where the parties resided when they entered into a common law marriage prior to 2005. The parties resided in Wyoming, which did not recognize common law marriage. As such, the claimant and the decedent were never lawfully married prior to January 1, 2005, even assuming the decedent was not aware that Wyoming did not recognize common law marriage. 

 

For additional information, contact Francis at fxwickersham@mdwcg.com or (610) 354-8263.

 


 

 

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