Until January 2, 2005, a woman and a man in Pennsylvania could consider marrying each other without any type of ceremony or written documentation. There was not even any requirement that they lived together for any amount of time, despite a common belief to the contrary. Basically, if there was no reason why they could not marry, such as being too young or being currently married to someone else, they basically needed to exchange words in the present tense – without even needing witnesses – showing that they intended to establish the relationship of wife and husband, and a common-law marriage was created.
A marriage created in this way could create difficulties when one had to prove the date of the marriage or, even, its very existence. As a result, courts made an issue of the problems with marriages that could exist without any documentation. A 1998 decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made clear that the common-law marriage certainly was disfavored but that the legislature would have to act to abolish the practice. Then, in 2003, due to the lack of legislative action, the Commonwealth Court took it upon itself to act in place of the legislature and decided that common-law marriage no longer existed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, all that this really did was to create more confusion.
With a Pennsylvania court saying one thing and the legislature saying nothing, the government needed to clarify what the law really was. Finally, the legislature passed a statute preventing anyone from attempting to create a common-law marriage beginning with the day after New Year’s Day in 2005. This did not invalidate such unions that took place through January 1, 2005, thereby ensuring that a possible common-law marriage that either the man or the woman involved asserted had occurred prior to the cutoff date still could prove troublesome. However, even with Pennsylvania’s abolition of the right to enter into a common-law marriage, problems caused by this concept remain.
Beyond the difficulties presented by a possible common-law marriage created in Pennsylvania prior to the beginning of 2005, there are problems because some states continue to permit a woman and a man to enter into this type of marriage at this point. They include Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah (which does add the requirement of an administrative order regarding the marriage), and Washington, D.C. A common-law marriage from any of these states eventually could have an impact in Pennsylvania. While the reason often is thought to be the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the federal Constitution, this is not involved. Instead the concept of comity is the cause.
Through comity, states generally recognize and respect the laws of other states as long as the law is not deemed offensive to public policy in a particular state. Since Pennsylvania has long favored the institution of marriage (between men and women), it continues to recognize common-law marriage, despite the problems with proof that led to practice being abolished here, as long as the marriage occurred in one of the states where it was valid. Although it could not be created here, public policy in Pennsylvania favors marriage so it remains valid as long as it was valid from its beginning.
Therefore, a woman and a man could enter into a common-law marriage in Washington, D.C. in 2011 and then move to Pennsylvania. If the marriage was valid in the District of Columbia, the comity doctrine continues its validity here.
This means that these spouses will have the same rights and obligations that other married couples have in Pennsylvania. They will remain married until death – or until a divorce. While entering a common-law marriage has none of the formalities of a ceremonial marriage, its ending can occur only in the same way that any other marriage can end. Because a divorce is required while both spouses are alive, there can be equitable distribution of marital property. Meanwhile, the death of one of the spouses leaves the other with the same inheritance rights as any other surviving spouse in Pennsylvania has.
In addition, because the marriage is valid, there are rights to payments from the Social Security Administration that can vest when a spouse retires if they have been married for at least ten years. A common-law marriage also affects a bankruptcy. If one spouse basically has all of the debt while property, such as a residence, is owned as tenants by the entireties in Pennsylvania, then the bankruptcy law can be used to protect the house, with only the spouse with the debts filing for bankruptcy to get a fresh start by having these debts discharged. The marriage may have begun elsewhere, but – by the time that the couple has arrived in Pennsylvania – the fact that it was a common-law marriage in the beginning is of no consequence, regardless of Pennsylvania’s abolishing the right to enter into such marriages years ago.
In the next post, we will see another married couple that relocates from Washington, D.C. to Pennsylvania but finds the consequences much different. Instead of a common-law marriage, we’ll look at a couple that has gone through a ceremonial marriage after obtaining a marriage license, making the marriage much easier to prove. This won’t matter once they move to Pennsylvania, where they will be treated as if they virtually are strangers to one another. Their “problem” is that they happen to share not only their lives but also the same gender. The evolving area of law of same-sex marriage and its current (and possible future) implications in our changing society will be examined.