Bindings That Tie

Common law marriages may be easy to establish in some jurisdictions but not as easy to end. When does the marriage end and what what implications does this have on your federal benefits?

Here’s a case in which the MSPB gets rapped by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for not properly construing what it takes legally to end a common law marriage in the District of Columbia.

As a result a common law wife of a deceased federal employee will have another shot at winning her claim against OPM for a spousal survivor annuity. Read on.

James Dickey, an employee of the US Information Agency, died without a will in the District of Columbia. Yvonne Dickey (AKA Yvonne Jean Robinson) petitioned the agency for James’ unpaid compensation and the Office of Personnel Management for death benefits, asserting she was Mr. Dickey’s common law wife. She submitted evidence of a common law marriage that she said took place when James and she began living together at his residence. She supported her petition with affidavits from three friends who indicated that Yvonne and James had held themselves out as husband and wife, which is pretty much all it takes in the District of Columbia to establish a marriage.

Both agencies paid up. But OPM suspended payments when it later discovered that Yvonne went by another name, lived at another address separate from James’, and, when Yvonne applied for her federal retirement before James died, she had stated she was not married and she had elected a full annuity. (As the AJ later pointed out, had she indicated she was married she would have had to elect a reduced annuity with a survivor’s benefit, or provided a waiver signed by James.)

Yvonne appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board and had her day in court. She presented testimony from the three affiants, which the AJ found contradictory and therefore not credible. She also presented income tax returns on which she had listed herself as “married filing separately” just prior to James’ death. The only evidence she presented in which James listed Yvonne as his wife was a health benefits enrollment form. But in the same form he listed himself as single. Yvonne also presented as evidence a settlement agreement in a federal district court case that she reached with James’ daughter by a previous marriage. The agreement gave the daughter most of James’ federal life insurance proceeds but she waived her right to any of his survivor annuity benefits.

In reaching his decision, the AJ pointed out that Yvonne had not been able to provide any of the documents OPM had requested that normally would be used to establish the marriage, such as joint property ownership, credit cards, utility bills, leases, bank accounts, and so forth. The AJ concluded that Yvonne was not entitled to the survivor’s benefit as James’ common law wife. Yvonne went to court and got a better result.

In Dickey v. Office of Personnel Management (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, No. 04-3391, August 17, 2005), the court vacated and remanded the MSPB ruling: “…we conclude that although there was substantial evidence that could support a finding of common-law marriage, the evidence could also support a contrary finding. Consequently, we remand this case to the Board to determine whether there was a common-law marriage in 1984 by applying the correct legal standard.”

The court took particular issue with the AJ finding that the common law marriage had been dissolved, pointing out that the only way to do this is through your typical legal divorce proceedings. It’s a lot easier to get married this way than it is to break up a common law marriage. Call this an interim win for Yvonne. Presumably the next round at the MSPB will focus on whether there was in fact a common law marriage. If so, Yvonne wins since there is no evidence that a divorce ever occurred. If not, she loses.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.