Sep 18, 2003
Pennsylvania Court Abolishes Common-Law Marriage, Calling It Impractical
By David B. Caruso - Associated Press Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Tossing aside centuries of tradition, a Pennsylvania appeals court abolished common-law marriages, saying it is no longer necessary to give longtime live-in couples the benefits of marriage without a license.
By a 5-2 vote, the Commonwealth Court said recognizing such unions has created an impossible situation for third parties trying to determine whether a person is married or single.
"Many sound reasons exist to abandon a system that allows the determination of important rights to rest on evidence fraught with inconsistencies, ambiguities and vagaries," Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter wrote in a decision filed Wednesday.
She added that the circumstances that created a need for common-law marriage - namely, the potential unavailability of a preacher in colonial times and the dependence of women on men for support - have dissipated.
Pennsylvania was one of 11 states that continued to recognize common-law marriage. Others have done away with them over time.
The ruling, made in the case of a man who sought pension benefits after his common-law wife died in a 1994 plane crash, will not affect any existing unions, but will bar people from entering into them in the future, the court said.
On that basis, the court unanimously found in favor of the plaintiff, John Kretz, who argued that he was entitled to the benefits Janet Stamos accrued while working at PNC Bank.
Two judges concurred with that finding, but dissented from the section of the decision barring future common-law marriages, saying the court had usurped the Legislature's authority.
"When the people desire to abolish common-law marriages, they should do so through their elected representatives in the legislature," Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner wrote.
In the past, Pennsylvania courts have looked at everything from a couple's tax filing status to whether a woman has begun using her partner's last name to determine whether a common-law marriage was valid.
Kretz said he and Stamos exchanged vows privately in 1989 and later signed an affidavit declaring themselves man and wife. On Thursday, he said all the couple lacked was "a piece of paper."
"A real marriage is between two people ... and it is just as much a state of mind," he said.
Northwestern University School of Law professor Cynthia Grant Bowman, whose writings on common-law marriage were cited in the court's majority opinion, said she thought the court had done away with an important protection for women who have curtailed their education or given up a career to be homemakers.
"I'm worried about the rights of women who, just as in a marriage, have contributed years of support to a man's career ... and could be very vulnerable at the termination of a relationship," she said.
PNC's lawyer, Joseph A. Fricker, said his client has not decided whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. He said common-law marriage has posed a tremendous problem for large employers, insurance companies and pension fund administrators who have to decide whether a someone is a legitimate spouse or a fraud.
"The problem is, nobody will ever know how many common-law marriages are real marriages, and how many are not," Fricker said.
This story can be found at: http://ap.tbo.com/ap/breaking/MGA7ESM9RKD.html