"Walter Smith" was just doing his job when it happened. The 48-year-old warehouse worker tripped and fell off a loading dock, struck his head on the concrete below and died of a broken neck. Two witnesses watched in horror.
Walter was a quiet man and said little of his personal life.
In determining his dependency benefits, it became easy to see why he was so hush, hush.
Human resource records listed him as married, but childless. Interestingly, his reported widow did not answer the phone despite numerous calls to Walter's home on the date of the accident.
A few days later, a woman named "Wendy" called, asking about death benefits. I advised her to come to the office with a marriage certificate and her birth certificate. She promised to come the next day. Something didn't seem quite right though -- especially since Wendy's address and phone number were different than Walter's.
We asked co-workers what they knew about Walter's marriage status. They said he was very private and never discussed his home life.
Wendy explained that they had been separated for more than a year, but were still legally married. While she said Walter did not support her financially, "he's still my husband."
I was thinking matters were settled, when the supervisor told me that a "Barbara" had just called the office, claiming to be Walter's common-law spouse. Now things were getting interesting.
In Texas at the time, case law read that a common-law spouse could collect death benefits if the common-law husband died in the course of employment. But since Walter was married, was Barbara out of luck?
Just when things started to crystallize, I found out Wendy and Walter had been very close to finalizing a divorce when he died.
Generally, in order for a common-law spousal claim to succeed, the couple must present themselves as "man and wife" to the community, share finances and reside together.
Strengthening Barbara's case, a neighbor said she saw Barbara, not Wendy, at Walter's house quite often. She said Barbara and Walter were planning to get married.
However, that might not matter. In Texas, virtually anyone with whom the deceased had maintained a relationship with was eligible to make a common-law spouse claim.
Then something strange happened. A woman named "Sue Sheffield" called the office asking about Walter's death benefits. She gave an address that was 150 miles from Walter's house but said she'd been in a relationship with Walter for more than 10 months.
She said he visited her at least twice a month and usually stayed one or two nights each time. She produced cozy photographs of them together at parties and dinners, and gave the names of several people who could confirm their relationship.
Who knew Walter's private life had the makings of a reality TV show?
So who should get the benefits? Wendy, the soon-to-be ex-wife? Barbara, the girlfriend? Or Sue, the out-of-town girlfriend?
After our attorney read the case law carefully, we determined the benefits would go to Wendy because she was still married to Walter when he died. Barbara and Sue were simply out of luck.
The state workers' compensation commission agreed. Of course, Barbara and Sue found out about one another. But poor Walter, the man of many loves, was dead now and beyond the reach of their anger and possible retribution.
JARED SHELLY is the editor of this column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is based on the experiences of a group of long-time claims adjusters. The situations they describe are real, but the names and key details are kept confidential.
June 1, 2013
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