Posts Tagged ‘death benefits’

Death Benefits in Kansas: Common Law Conundrum

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Tasha Dakota Burns lived with Tony Anguiano for four years. After his divorce from his first wife became final, Tony – on several occasions – asked Tasha to marry him. Tasha did not take him seriously, because his proposals only came when he had had a bit too much to drink.Tony gave Tasha an engagement ring for Christmas in 2005. Tasha acknowledged that neither she nor Tony referred to the rings as wedding rings, but it was her intention to marry Tony.
Tasha had one child by Tony, with a second on the way. Then on August 22, 2007, Tony was killed in a work-related accident, thrown from a scaffolding 40 feet in the air. The status of Tasha’s relationship to Tony suddenly became paramount. She filed for death benefits under the Kansas comp statute.
At her initial hearing for benefits, Tasha testified that she believed she and Tony were married sometime in 2005 because “he gave me a ring and I gave him a ring and he wasn’t going nowhere and I wasn’t going to go nowhere.” After the two exchanged rings, she said that Tony repeatedly stated, “I’m going to marry this girl or this is my baby and I’m going to marry her.” However, Tasha admitted that Tony never stated that the two were actually married.
It is painful and perhaps futile to parse the language of a couple that “ain’t going nowhere”, but parsing is what the judges in these cases must do. Under Kansas law, to establish a common-law marriage, a plaintiff must prove (1) capacity of the parties to marry; (2) a present marriage agreement between the parties; and (3) a holding out to the public as husband and wife.
“Although the marriage agreement need not be in any particular form, it is essential there be a present mutual consent to the marriage between the parties” [emphasis added].
Ah, there’s the rub: a “present mutual consent.” We can probably assume that, had Tony been around to answer the question, he would have affirmed his marriage to Tasha. But Tony, alas, is gone and Tasha is left holding the proverbial (empty) bag. The Court of Appeals upheld the workers comp court in its ruling that there was no proof of marriage.
What’s in a Name?
In building a case to reject Tasha’s claim, the Court pointed to the fact that she continued to use her maiden name. While she claimed that it is uncontroverted that she “holds out to the public her married name, present intent to be married…and a wedding ring on her finger,” Tasha testified that she introduces herself to others as “Tasha Burns,” her driver’s license lists her as “Tasha Burns,” she signed her 2005, 2006, and 2007 tax returns as “Tasha Burns,” and she never used the name “Tasha Anguiano” in any official capacity.
To which I say to the court, so what? Lot’s of women keep their original names after marriage, so a similar standard should be applied to common law marriages.
Tasha took the risk of living with Tony and having his kids, without the protection of formalizing their relationship. Surely, it seemed unimportant at the time, especially as the marriage proposals came only when Tony was a bit looped. But as this tale illustrates, we never know how much time is given to us. The fates can be cruel; the days that seem to stretch far into the future can end abruptly. And the consequences of not explicitly establishing the exact nature of a relationship may haunt us for the rest of our lives.