Common Law Marriages And Survivor Benefits

Written on 02/03/2024

Marta Danylyk and David Hofer began dating in February 2012. At that time, Hofer served as a police officer for the City of New York. Danylyk and Hofer began living together in New York in November 2013. The couple moved to Texas together in January 2014, where Hofer began employment with the Euless Police Department.

The couple initially lived in an apartment while they searched for a house. On September 14, 2014, Hofer took Danylyk on a pre-arranged ride-along in his patrol car. Hofer then surprised Danylyk with a proposal and presented her with an engagement ring and a wedding band, with family and other officers witnessing the event. The couple purchased a home together in November 2015.

Tragically, Hofer was killed in the line of duty on March 1, 2016. He was survived by his mother, his father, two siblings, and Danylyk. After Hofer’s death, Danylyk, supported by Hofer’s parents, began an “heirship determination” in state probate court. The Court found that Danylyk was the sole heir to Hofer’s estate. Danylyk then sought death benefits from Euless, a worker’s compensation self-insurer.

The City of Euless challenged Danylyk’s status as Hofer’s widow. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a unanimous verdict against the City. The City persisted, challenging the jury’s decision in the Texas Court of Appeals. The City argued three things: (1) the evidence was insufficient to establish Danylyk and Hofer agreed to be married; (2) the evidence that Danylyk and Hofer represented to others they were married; and (3) the trial judge gave erroneous instructions to the jury.

The Court upheld the jury’s verdict. The Court noted that “to establish an agreement to be married, the evidence must show the parties intended to have a present, immediate, and permanent marital relationship and they did in fact agree to be husband and wife. Here, Danylyk testified she and Hofer agreed to be married. This agreement did not come about through a single conversation but occurred over multiple conversations. She testified the couple decided to move to Texas together because they were ‘committed,’ ‘it’s us and nobody else for us for the rest of our lives,’ and ‘this was going to be our forever until death do us part.’ Hofer gave Danylyk a wedding ring and an engagement ring. Danylyk testified that she and Hofer agreed to be married on September 14, 2014, the date of the formal proposal, and considered this date to be their anniversary. Danylyk stated the two were married at the time the couple closed on their house in Plano.

Hofer’s parents declared under oath to the probate court Hofer was married to Danylyk when Hofer died.

“This is direct evidence Hofer and Danylyk agreed to be married. Beyond the direct evidence, there is evidence of an agreement to be married: cohabitation and representations to others. There was also evidence that Danylyk told others she and Hofer lived together and did all the things married people do, and friends called them husband and wife.

“The City asserts the evidence conclusively proved Danylyk and Hofer had not agreed to be married, particularly because Danylyk and Hofer never had a singular conversation where they said, ‘we agree to be married.’ However, an intention to be ceremonially married on some future occasion does not necessarily negate the inference that the parties believe they are already married by common law. And as discussed, an agreement to be married need not be tied to a singular date or conversation, and there was direct evidence Danylyk and Hofer agreed to be married.

“The City also relies on Danylyk’s testimony that after the proposal ceremony, the couple would occasionally refer to each other as husband and wife, but mainly called each other ‘fiancé’ or ‘fiancée.’ But as discussed, Danylyk also testified she and Hofer held themselves out as husband and wife after moving to Texas, and other witness and documentary evidence supported this assertion. Any discrepancies or inconsistencies about the existence of an agreement, its timing, or the couple’s representations to the public go to the witnesses’ credibility and the weight accorded to the evidence. Resolving these issues was solely within the jury’s province, and we assume the jurors resolved all conflicts in accordance with their verdict.”

City of Euless v. Danylyk, 2023 WL 8595687 (Tex. App. 2023).