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Pennsylvania workers' comp denies benefits to common-law widow

The Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Appeal Board recently upheld a decision that denied a woman's claim for death benefits after her husband's death because it determined that her common-law marriage the couple entered into in Mexico does not meet the definition of a legal marriage in either Mexico or in Pennsylvania. The Appeal Board also rejected an appeal for survivors' benefits for the man's two minor children because their claim was filed too late.

As frustrating as the decision is, especially for the children who were denied benefits, it does illustrate one of the requirements for workers' compensation survivors' benefits that doesn't get reported very often. While in society, relationships may be fluid or undefined, in the law the precise nature of the survivor's relationship to the deceased cannot be.

In Pennsylvania, workers' compensation survivors' benefit claims can take a number of factors into account, but proof of the claimant's legal relationship to the deceased is fundamental. While it may seem strange that a basic fact like marriage needs to be proven, the fact is that insurance companies often require a marriage license or similar evidence before they will pay a survivors' benefit claim.

In this particular case, the couple had lived in a so-called common law marriage while living in Mexico. While some states in the U.S. do recognize common law marriages, the government of Mexico does not, even when children are involved. The man apparently moved to Pennsylvania, and there is no information about his view of the marriage.

Without evidence of a ceremonial or civil marriage, the widow could not prove she qualified for survivor's benefits through workers' comp. At some point in the process, she amended her petition to seek survivors' benefits for her children, who ordinarily would qualify for benefits. Unfortunately, she did that too late, and the court said it would unduly prejudice the case to add them.

It's important to remember that claims for survivors' benefits can only be filed up to three years after the date of the death. In fact, survivors' benefits can be reduced if the claim isn't filed within one year.

When it comes to workers' comp, details matter.

Source: Risk & Insurance magazine, "Failure to show marriage under Mexican law dooms fatal claim petition," March 4, 2013

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