Utah Denies Health Coverage to Woman Diagnosed with Cancer


Utah’s Public Employee Health Program (PEHP) is denying health coverage to a woman diagnosed with cancer. The Utah woman, Tara Vandersteen, is not eligible for coverage under her husband’s, Rick Stuart’s, plan even after they “have lived together as man and wife” for 14 years, according to KUTV. Vandersteen will not receive healthcare from PEHP, the state of Utah says, because the couple agreed to a common law marriage.

Utah’s Definition of a Common Law Marriage

Generally speaking, a U.S. common law marriage entails years of cohabitation without an official license or marriage ceremony. Utah defines the term slightly differently. “Legally in Utah, a couple is considered married if they are of legal age, live together and mutually assume marital rights, duties, and obligations,” KUTV adds.

Healthcare providers may use common law marriages as a means of denying benefits.
Healthcare providers may use common law marriages as a means of denying benefits.

The lack of clarity surrounding common law marriages, however, inspired Vandersteen and Stuart to tie the knot — strictly legally this time. Even so, PEHP asserts that their legal marriage certificate, signed in 2012, is not enough. KUTV explains, “According the court order, a judge declared that Rick and Tara have been legally married [according to common law] since Aug. 31st, 2000. Well PEHP has chosen to ignore that date and instead focus on the date the judge signed the order, Nov. 26, 2012. That later date is the date PEHP says Rick and Tara were married.”

Common Law Marriages Leave A Lot to Be Desired

Rick and Tara’s tragic story is one example the flaws of common law marriages. The recent dissolution of French President Francois Hollande’s common law marriages has many questioning the relatively laid back arrangement. “This is because ending marriage vows is inherently different than for a common law union. There is more likely to be discussion and attempts at reconciliation after a couple has publicly committed to their relationship surrounded by ‘custom and ceremony’ in the words of W.B. Yeats. In common law unions, it is too easy for someone to bail-out at the first sign of trouble, without exploring all or even any solutions,” The Globe and Mail says.

Recent news has many wondering whether common law marriages are sufficient. Rick and Tara’s experience makes it clear: healthcare providers may use common law marriages as a means of denying benefits. Others question whether common law marriages are too easily severed.

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