In Georgia, Co-Habitation Without Marriage = No Death Benefits

Within the context of a Georgia workers’ compensation claim, a meretricious relationship works to deny dependency benefits, even if actual dependency exists, held a state appellate court on Tuesday [see Sanchez v. Carter, 2017 Ga. App. LEXIS 465 (Oct. 17, 2017)]. Accordingly, where claimant lived continuously with the employee from 2002 until his death in 2015, was wholly dependent upon him because of her own disability, and yet claimant and the deceased employee had never ceremonially married (nor established a valid common law marriage), she could not recover death benefits under OCGA § 34-9-13 [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, §§ 96.02, 97.06, 98.04].

Background

On October 22, 2015, the employee suffered a fatal head injury when he accidentally fell from a roof during the course of his employment. The claimant lived continuously with the employee from 2002 until his death. They were never ceremonially married, although they had discussed getting married, and had planned to be married in church in 2015. Claimant became disabled in 2011, due to diabetes that affected her feet, and the employee paid all of claimant’s living expenses, including the rent and utilities for the home in which they lived.

Wholly Dependent Upon Deceased Employee

The ALJ concluded that, at the time of the employee’s death, and for some four years previously, claimant was wholly dependent on the employee for her support. The employee had no wife or dependent children; and, other than claimant, there were no other persons who were wholly dependent on the employee at the time of his death. Nevertheless, citing Williams v. Corbett, 260 Ga. 668, 398 SE2d 1 (1990), the ALJ denied dependency benefits on the grounds that such payments should not grow out of a meretricious relationship. The Board accepted the ALJ’s findings and affirmed. The superior court also affirmed.

Williams Decision Controlled

The appellate court agreed that with its 1990 decision in Williams, the Georgia Supreme Court found that, within the context of a workers’ compensation claim, a meretricious relationship works to deny dependency benefits, even if actual dependency exists. The appellate court added that since 1997, the state legislature had barred the creation of common-law marriages within the state. Neither the superior court nor the Court of Appeals was free to modify the holding of the state high court in Williams. While the Supreme Court might choose to revisit that issue, lower courts were bound by its precedent.

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