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State Law Determines If Common Law Marriage Exists in VA Cases

Two women, Mrs. Burden and Mrs. Coleman, appealed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, denying their claims of indemnity and dependency compensation. Though the fact patterns in each case were different, they had one similarity: at the time of the veterans’ deaths, they were not married.

In Mrs. Burden's case she attempted to show that she was in a common law marriage with Mr. Burden for six years before their ceremonial marriage. The two were legally married two months before his death, and because it was less than one-year, Mrs. Burden was denied benefits.

Mrs. Coleman's circumstances were different. She was married to Mr. Coleman for thirteen years and then divorced. Mrs. Coleman contended that the two reconciled and lived as husband and wife until his death.

In both cases, the women challenged the application of Alabama state law to determine whether a common law marriage existed. Though they argued that the elements of common law may be derived from Alabama law, they stated that the evidentiary standard should not rely on Alabama law.

The evidentiary standard to prove a common law marriage under Alabama law is "clear and convincing proof," while the evidentiary standard for VA claims under 5107(b) is the "benefit of the doubt" rule.

The Federal Circuit did not agree and affirmed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, stating that 38 U.S.C. § 103(c) clearly states that state law applies to determine whether a valid common law marriage existed. The court also found that the state's evidentiary standard for proving common law marriage also applied.

When discussing the relationship to § 5107(b) to this ruling, the court found that "the benefit of the doubt rule is inapplicable where a statute or regulation specifically dictates a different evidentiary standard."

Giving advice to veterans? If they want their loved ones to receive the benefits they risked their lives to get, tell them to make it official. Otherwise, their loved ones will have to prove common law marriage -- something that's especially difficult when one of the parties is no longer alive.

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