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Ski resort worker's common-law wife entitled to death benefits

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The common-law wife of a worker, who died from traumatic injuries sustained in a utility-tractor rollover accident, is entitled to death benefits, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled Tuesday.

Wayne Tietz, an employee of Elk Mountain Ski Resort Inc., died on Oct. 11, 2011 as a result of multiple injuries he suffered in a work-related accident, court records show. Tara Tietz-Morrison later filed a claim for death benefits, listing herself as Mr. Tietz's wife and their daughters, Shea and Tarwyn Tietz, as his dependents, according to records.

Union Dale, Pennsylvania-based Elk Mountain agreed that Mr. Tietz's death was caused by work-related injuries, and that his daughters' weekly death benefits of $180.18 would be paid to Ms. Tietz-Morrison as their legal guardian, records show.

The parties didn't resolve whether Ms. Tietz-Morrison was legally married to Mr. Tietz when he died, so the issue was submitted to a workers compensation judge, according to records.

Ms. Tietz-Morrison testified before the judge that she and Mr. Tietz entered into a common-law marriage contract on June 12, 2004, records show. She said they had a traditional Native American marriage ceremony, which involved exchanging vows and wrapping a blanket around them to signify their “joining as one.”

According to records, a photograph taken on the day of the ceremony showed Mr. Tietz wearing the silver wedding ring that Ms. Tietz-Morrison said she gave him during the marriage ceremony.

However, the couple, whose daughters were born in 2005 and 2011, didn't file a joint tax return because they thought they had to wait 7 years before their common law marriage would be recognized by the IRS and other governmental agencies, records show.

On May 3, 2012, the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, Orphans' Court Division, ruled that Ms. Tietz-Morrison is the surviving spouse of Mr. Tietz, according to records.

Concluding that the couple entered into a common-law marriage contract on June 12, 2004, the workers comp judge ordered Elk Mountain to pay death benefits to Ms. Tietz-Morrison and her daughters, with a credit to be given to Elk Mountain for benefits it already paid, records show. The Workers' Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the decision.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the board's decision, ruling on Tuesday that Ms. Tietz-Morrison “established clear and convincing evidence that she and (Mr. Tietz) entered into a common-law marriage contract on June 12, 2004, and that she was the common-law wife of (Mr. Tietz) at the time of his death. Therefore, she is entitled to death benefits.”