Common-Law Marriages In Pennsylvania Still Exist

Cerees Moretti

Legislation had banned the contracting of new common-law marriages (CLM) in Pennsylvania after January 1, 2005. For the text of the statute abolishing common law marriage, see 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1103. Any common-law marriages prior to this date were grandfathered in.

The difference between common-law marriage and a 'normal' marriage is that there is no officiate (priest, justice of the peace, or other official authorized to marry couples) nor marriage license for a common law marriage. No witnesses were needed.

The husband and wife have the same rights as any married couple for income taxes, estate, and property purposes and will need to file for divorce if they wish to end their marriage. Both spouses have rights to assets and property in the event of a divorce. Individuals who are or were in valid common law marriages may be eligible for Social Security benefits (spousal, survivor, and death benefits) based on their spouses' or former spouses' earnings record, as long as they met the requirements to establish a common law marriage in their respective states.

Pennsylvania didn't have restrictive criteria either. Couples did not have to be living together a specific amount of time (ex: 7yrs plus). Pa called for couples to have been legally able to marry (Not being legally married to another, and of age to marry) in addition to the exchanging of vows stating their present intent to be husband and wife. CLM couples didn't have to have joint bank accounts or file their taxes together. While having joint accounts & filing joint tax returns is proof in the event of death of one's spouse in regards to estate matters, it wasn't required.

Recently Keystone Advocates acquired two CLM cases, both within a few weeks of the other. It is quite troubling that either spouse was unable to obtain legal counsel to assist them.

Case 1: A 74yo elderly disabled woman, who has been CL with a man since 1991, was evicted from the home she shared with him, by his (realtor) daughter. He had entered the hospital. The wife wasn't permitted to see him or talk to him. His 2 children managed to get themselves added to the deed of the property she shared with her spouse. There was allegedly a power of attorney over the husband that was for medical, held by the other daughter and it was not notarized. Theoretically, this medical POA isn't legal. She did however possess a letter from her husband, dated 2003, whereas he stated should anything happen to him, the house mortgage should be paid off by his investments and the bills and taxes be paid by his retirement accounts for his wife to continue to live in the house and be provided for. Her income is only 903$ mo in Social Security.

The (realtor) daughter served the woman (wife) a notice to vacate the premises by June 1st of 22, giving her 6 days notice. This violated Pennsylvania eviction laws. This rendered this woman homeless. She wasn't allowed to take with her any possessions she had acquired over the years; Not a pot or pan, coffee cup, dishes, bath towel, furniture, knick-knacks, wall pictures, not even her wheelchair. She left with only her books and clothes.

Attorneys refused to take her case, citing Pa dissolved CLM's. State and county agencies also denied her assistance.

Case 2: Another senior citizen woman is a CLM for 25 years plus. Her CL husband enters a hospital in Harrisburg, Pa. The son has POA (power of attorney) and refuses the wife to see her husband. The hospital's patient advocate had her escorted out of the hospital. She has made call after call to no avail. She contacted the corporate CEO's office in Pittsburgh and the local legal aid. She too cannot obtain assistance.

What is problematic herein, is that these 2 women have rights. The same rights as couples who were married & have county marriage certificates. Both hospitals refused to acknowledge the spouse's rights to see their husbands. They've dismissed their common-law marriages.

What is even more troubling is, a law that was passed by President Obama back in 2010 that both these hospitals are not following. Any hospital that receives federal funding must grant equal visitation to all visitors regardless of whether they're legally or biologically related to the patient. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) had issued a rule that would allow patients to decide whom they want at their bedside, which includes domestic partners.

Both husbands want their wives at their bedside.

It is most important to have advance directives in case of situations like these. While most people do not think that such emergencies will occur or have any medical situations arise, they sometimes do, and to avoid matters such as these, having your wishes on paper is the only way to avoid conflict.

There are a few elder law clinics in Pennsylvania that will assist in making these advanced directives.

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I blog about socio-political issues. I'm retired, but my advocacy carries on with 2 local grassroots organizations.

Harrisburg, PA
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