Workers Compensation Benefits- Surviving Spouse In Fatal Work Injury
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth has addressed the issue of the burden on an employer in establishing that a surviving dependent spouse is party to a common law marriage. Under Section 307 of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, in situations where a person is fatally injured in the course and scope of employment, compensation benefits are payable to the survivors of that person, typically, the widow/widower and their children. However, the Act also indiactes that should any dependent of a deceased employe die or remarry, the right of such dependent or widower to compensation shall cease. If a widow remarries, she shall receive 104 weeks of compensation in a lump sum. In the case of PPL v. WCAB (Hicks), the facts indicated that Sandra Rebo (Claimant) was receiving workers’ compensation benefits as a dependent spouse following the death of her husband, George Rebo (Decedent). Mr. Rebo’s employer filed a Termination Petition on June 12, 2008 seeking to cease compensation payments alleging that Mrs. Rebo (Claimant) was involved in a “meretricious relationship”. The employer later amended its Petition to seek alternative relief based on an assertion that Claimant had remarried.
Claimant testified that she was the widow of Decedent and that she has not remarried. She acknowledged that she resides in a home with Gary McDonald and that she and Mr. McDonald split expenses. She stated that they did not currently engage in any sexual activity. Claimant admitted that she and Mr. McDonald did previously engage in sexual activity off and on through 2006. She stressed that she had no intention of marrying Mr. McDonald and that the two do not hold themselves out as husband and wife. She acknowledged that she and Mr. McDonald represented to Mr. McDonald’s employer that they were common law husband and wife for the purpose of having her placed on his health insurance coverage. She also admitted she and Mr. McDonald completed their federal income taxes as “married filing jointly”. However, she indicated that she never engaged in an official marriage ceremony with Mr. McDonald. Mr. McDonald also testified in this matter. He agreed he represented to his employer, Phillipsburg Borough, that he and Claimant were common law husband and wife for the purpose of having her placed on his health insurance. He further agreed that the two completed tax forms as “married filing jointly.”
After hearing this evidence, the Workers Compensation Judge(WCJ) denied the Termination Petition concluding that the employer failed to meet its burden of proving that the Claimant was involved in a meretricious relationship. The WCJ further opined that Employer did not establish a right to any relief based upon Claimant entering into a common law marriage. The WCJ acknowledged that Claimant and Mr. McDonald live together, that they filed tax returns as a married couple, that they engaged in sexual relations for a period of time and that they represented to Mr. McDonald’s employer that they were a married couple for insurance purposes. However, the WCJ determined that Claimant and Mr. McDonald never formed any intent to enter into common law marriage noting that “they have simply tried to ‘game the system’ by saying that they were common law married when that posture benefited them financially.”
The Commonwealth Court, in hearing this case on appeal, noted that common law marriage can only be created by an exchange of words in the present tense, spoken with the specific purpose of creating the legal relationship of husband and wife, and this is a heavy burden and must be established by clear and convincing evidence. The Court thus determined that the employer, as a matter of law, did not establish that claimant and claimant’s male roommate had entered into a common law marriage so as to require termination of benefits. The Court also indicated that evidence of words sufficient to establish a definite agreement to marry were required in order for employer to satisfy its burden. Any presumption of common law marriage based on proof of cohabitation and reputation was unavailable to the employer, and claimant’s roommate stated that the two never agreed to be married.
Thomas P. Cummings has been a Partner with Dougherty, Leventhal & Price, LLP since 1996 and has been with the firm since 1991. He focuses his practice on workers' compensation and Social Security Disability cases.