Claimant filed for death benefits on behalf of Decedent, who died while working for Employer after an Oct. 2011  utility tractor rollover accident.  Claimant filed as Decedent’s wife and listed their two daughters as dependents.  Employer accepted liability and agreed to death benefits for daughters, but contested legality of Claimant’s marriage to Decedent.  Claimant asserted that she and Decedent had a valid common-law marriage contract as of 6/12/04; they were both Native American (she is Nanticoke and Cherokee; he was Mohawk) and participated in a traditional cultural ceremony on that date, which included exchanging rings, but pursuant to their cultural beliefs, they did not have an officiant or witnesses, nor did they acquire a marriage license.  They lived and held themselves out as spouses from then until Decedent’s death in the October 2011 work accident.  In addition to testifying, Claimant produced supplemental documentation (bills, parental consent forms, etc.).  Orphans’ Court declared Claimant to be Decedent’s surviving spouse, estate administrator, and heir. 


WCJ concluded that marriage was valid (based on constant cohabitation and reputation) and Claimant entitled to death benefits as surviving spouse.  WCAB affirmed.


Cmwlth Ct: Affirm.  Common-law marriages have been abolished by statute since 1/1/05, but allowed extant common-law marriages to retain validity.  Claimant presented clear and convincing evidence that her common-law marriage to Decedent was valid.  Also, Claimant’s interest was not shown to be adverse to Decedent’s estate (Orphans’ Court holding), so no proscription of her testimony per Dead Man’s Act.  Employer presented no evidence disputing Claimant’s testimony.  Marriage was valid and Claimant is entitled to death benefits as surviving spouse.

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