Superior Court Recognizes Validity of Same-Sex Common Law Marriages
Ashley Rotchford on 7/23/2017
About The Author
Summer Associate at Heckscher, Teillon, Terrill & Sager, P.C.
A recent decision from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania recognized same-sex common law marriage in Pennsylvania, provided such common law marriages were entered into before 2005 and met the requirements set forth in Staudenmayer v. Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d 1016 (Pa. 1998) (holding that a party claiming a common law marriage must produce clear and convincing evidence of the marriage contract). This case reinforces a series of earlier lower court decisions in Pennsylvania that also found pre-2005 same-sex common law marriages to be valid. This recognition of same-sex common law marriage confirms rights of same-sex couples, specifically those who never had the chance to formally marry, to receive the benefits and responsibilities that Pennsylvania already conferred onto opposite-sex married couples, including inheritance rights.
In Estate of Stephen Carter, the decedent ("Decedent") and his partner ("Petitioner") were in a 17-year same-sex relationship. They met in February 1996 and began living together just a few months later in Philadelphia. In late 1996, Petitioner proposed to Decedent with a diamond ring, which Decedent accepted. A few months later, Decedent gave Petitioner a ring with the date February 18, 1997 inscribed on it. The couple celebrated an anniversary on that date each subsequent year. In April 2013, Decedent died. Three years later, in 2016, Petitioner sought a declaration that he and Decedent were in a common law marriage prior to January 1, 2005. No one opposed Petitioner in seeking this declaration, and Decedent's family supported Petitioner.
The Beaver County Orphans' Court denied the petition on two grounds. First, the Orphans' Court found that same-sex partners could not enter into common law marriages prior to 2014 because same-sex marriage was not recognized in Pennsylvania prior to that date. The trial court considered it a legal impossibility to recognize a common law marriage that would not have been legal at the time it was entered into. Second, even if it were legal, Petitioner failed to establish that he and Decedent were in a common law marriage. The trial court based this conclusion on the testimony of Petitioner and others that Petitioner and Decedent wished to have a formal wedding ceremony after same-sex marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania.
Petitioner appealed the trial court's decision, arguing that Pennsylvania should recognize same-sex common law marriages in light of recent decisions regarding marriage rights, and that he presented sufficient evidence to show that he and Decedent were in a common law marriage prior to 2005. The Superior Court agreed.
The Superior Court first addressed the trial court's claim that same-sex couples could not enter into common law marriages prior to 2014 because, before 2014, Pennsylvania law only recognized marriage between a man and a woman. The Superior Court was quick to dismiss this claim by stating that courts cannot rely on unconstitutional laws to preclude common law marriage. The court noted that in 2013, there was a shift towards recognizing same-sex marriage at the state and federal level that resulted in the abrogation of "defense of marriage" statutes nationwide. "Together, Windsor, Whitewood, and Obergefell teach that same-sex couples have precisely the same capacity to enter marriage contracts as do opposite-sex couples, and a court today may not rely on the now-invalidated provisions of the Marriage Law to deny that constitutional reality." Carter, Slip. Op. at 13.
The Superior Court, therefore, started its analysis of the right of same-sex couples to be in recognizable common law marriages by providing an in-depth look into the evolution of same-sex marriage at the federal and state level.
The court began with Windsor, in which the United States Supreme Court held that the provision of the Defense Of Marriage Act ("DOMA") defining marriage as between a man and a woman violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675, 2695 (2013). The Court reasoned that "DOMA's unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage … operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages." Id. at 2693.
Then the Superior Court looked to Whitewood v. Wolf, a Middle District of Pennsylvania case that struck down Pennsylvania's Marriage Law as violative of the Fourteenth Amendment, based on the precept that same-sex couples have the same fundamental right to marry as opposite-sex couples. 992 F.Supp. 2d 410, 423- 24 (M.D. Pa. 2014). In its ruling, the Whitewood court emphasized that "the right Plaintiffs seek to exercise is not a new right, but is rather a right that these individuals have always been guaranteed by the United States Constitution." Id. at 423. Quoting Whitewood, the Superior Court noted: "[Those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment] knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom." Id. at 423.
Carter, Slip. Op. at 10.
In addition, prior to this matter reaching the Superior Court, several lower courts in Pennsylvania had already recognized the right of same-sex couples to be in common law marriages that commenced prior to 2005, including In re Estate of Wilkerson, No. 500 DE of 2016 (O.C. Phila. Sept. 25, 2016) (same-sex common law marriage existed as of July 4, 1990). Looking to this precedent at the federal and state level, the Superior Court concluded that same-sex couples had the right to enter into common-law marriages prior to 2005 in Pennsylvania.
The court then addressed whether Petitioner and Decedent fulfilled the necessary elements to be in a common law marriage. Even before 2005, courts in Pennsylvania did not look kindly upon common law marriage "[b]ecause claims for the existence of a marriage in the absence of a certified ceremonial marriage present a 'fruitful source of perjury and fraud.'" Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d at 1019.
Relying on the standards set forth in Staudenmayer, the court noted that Petitioner must show by clear and convincing evidence that he and Decedent had entered into a legal relationship. To do so, Petitioner must show a present intent to marry prior to 2005.
In its analysis, the court focused on the uncontradicted testimony of Petitioner and others, who testified in support of Petitioner. Specifically, the court focused on the fact that Petitioner and Decedent exchanged rings and celebrated their wedding anniversary on the same day every year. The court noted that the exchanging of rings is strong evidence of a present intent to marry. See, e.g., Estate of Wagner, 159 A.2d 495, 498 (Pa. 1960).
While recognizing that same-sex couples are subject to the same standards of proving a common law marriage as opposite-sex couples, the court found nothing in the facts that indicated perjury or fraud.
Furthermore, the court addressed the trial court's emphasis on the testimony that Petitioner and Decedent were planning a formal wedding ceremony. Noting that "the couples statements about a future 'wedding' or 'big party' plainly referred to a ceremonial marriage … which is fully consistent with an existing common law marriage," the court concluded that Petitioner satisfied his burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that he and Decedent entered into a common law marriage prior to 2005. Carter, Slip Op. at 22.
In conclusion, the court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for entry of an order declaring a common law marriage between Petitioner and Decedent as of February 18, 1997.
Ashley Rotchford is a law student at Temple University Beasley School of Law (J.D. expected 2018) and was a 2017 summer associate at Heckscher, Teillon, Terrill&Sager, P.C. This article previously appeared in the Probate and Trust Section Newsletter, June 2017. © 2017 Heckscher, Teillon, Terrill & Sager, P.C. All Rights Reserved.
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