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Commonwealth Court holds that employer did not meet burden of proof that widow entered into common law marriage so as to warrant termination of widow's benefits under section 307 of the Act.

January 1, 2011
PPL v. WCAB (Rebo); No. 2264 C.D. 2009; filed April 1, 2010; by Judge Flaherty

The claimant in this case received workers' compensation benefits as a result of the death of her husband. The employer filed a termination petition to stop payment of benefits because the widow was involved in a meretricious relationship with another man. The workers' compensation judge found that the employer failed to meet the burden of proof of such a relationship, even though the widow admitted living with another man, she represented to the man's employer that they were common law husband and wife to obtain health insurance benefits, and submitted federal income tax returns as "married filing jointly." In denying the termination petition, the workers' compensation judge determined that the widow and the man never formed an intent to enter into common law marriage. Instead, the workers' compensation judge stated that the claimant "simply tried to 'game the system'" by saying she was common law married to benefit her financially. On appeal, the employer argued that benefits should be terminated under § 307 of the Act, or alternatively, that equity warranted termination. The Commonwealth Court noted that the employer has a heavy burden or proving by clear and convincing evidence that the parties intended to form a marriage contract under § 307. The court noted that Pennsylvania abolished common law marriage as of January 1, 2005; therefore, the employer had to prove that the claimant had entered into such a marriage before that date, via a definite agreement to marry. While it emphasized that while claims of common law marriage present a fruitful source of perjury and fraud, the court agreed that the workers' compensation judge did not err in concluding that the widow never expressed or represented a present intent to form a marriage. It also took exception to the workers' compensation judge's characterization of the widow's actions as trying to "game the system," as she violated the rules and procedures instead of using them, which could subject her to fraud in another forum. The court further rejected the equity claim, finding that the claimant was entitled to workers' compensation benefits based on her husband's death until she remarried. In the absence of proof of an agreement to remarry, there was no basis for equitable relief.

Case Law Alert, 1st Qtr 2011

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