The Common-Law Tie That Binds Up Courts, Insurers

Article excerpt

Oklahoma's common-law marriage laws provide a legal loophole for insurance fraud while clogging up the court system, the House Judiciary Committee has been told.

The issue has become more costly and complex due to requirements that insurance coverage continue for a period of time after an employee leaves a company, Ray Hicks, representing group insurance carriers, told the committee.

A problem often arises, Hicks said, when an employee and a common- law spouse with dependent coverage breakup. To keep from running afoul of requirements, the employer most notify the former dependent of the available extended coverage. The Legislature has worked to make insurance available, Hicks said, but this is detrimental to that process. It is costly to business in the form of potentially higher rates and it is costly to the insurance carrier. He said the problem does not affect children as they would be eligible to continue dependent coverage under the employee's policy. Rep. Ray Vaughn, R-Edmond requested the interim study 97-58 on common-law marriages. During the last session, Vaughn said, the House passed a bill by a 66-32 margin to end common law as a valid form of marriage. It would not affect any present common-law marriages. The bill currently is in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The purpose of the hearing this week, Vaughn said, was to collect information to present the Senate, which may get the measure moving once session starts. Robert Spector, University of Oklahoma law professor, said continuing to recognize common-law marriages provides an opportunity for people to commit insurance fraud or income tax fraud while never intending to stay married. It often creates a situation where people don't know if they are married or not, and if so to whom, Spector said. In one instance, he said, three people appeared at a probate hearing all claiming to be the surviving spouse. In other instances, the date of marriage becomes important. This can change the insurance benefits or costs associated with claims. "It is fun for lawyers. You can make a lot of money. But, it serves no social purpose," he said. Some of these issues could be resolved by legislation, granting rights to persons who cohabited. …