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I. CASE FACTS: In 1997, Claimant filed a fatal Claim Petition alleging that he was the common law spouse of the Decedent who died in an airplane crash in 1994 while working for the Employer. The couple had never undergone a formal marriage. The Claimant had to demonstrate that a common law marriage existed between him and the Decedent. A common law marriage is created only with the exchange of words in the present tense, spoken with the specific purpose that the relationship of a husband and wife is intended to be created. The Claimant admitted into evidence an Affidavit that he had utilized a member of his Iron Workers’ Union to recognize the Decedent as his wife, and as a beneficiary under his union welfare plan. That Affidavit indicated that the Claimant and the Decedent united themselves in marriage through the mutual exchange of words which expressed their present intent to live together as husband and wife. Contrary evidence was submitted by the Employer including the fact that the couple maintained separate bank accounts, and the mortgage and deed to the couple’s house was in the Decedent’s name only. The couple also filed separate tax returns. The Workers’ Compensation Judge found that the Claimant had met the burden to demonstrate common law marriage since the Affidavit documented the couple’s present intent to live together as husband and wife consistent with the common law doctrine.
The Employer appealed, asserting that the doctrine of common law marriage ought to be abandoned, and further asserting that the Claimant had failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required to establish common law marriage.
II. CASE HOLDING: The Commonwealth Court agreed with the Employer and determined that the common law marriage doctrine should be abolished in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In doing so, the Commonwealth Court relied on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s articulated skepticism of the continued viability of common law marriage in the case of Staudenmayer v. Staudenmayer, 552 Pa. 253, 714 A.2d 1016 (1998). The Commonwealth Court explained that the Supreme Court in Staudenmayer noted that claims for the existence of a marriage in the absence of a certified ceremonial marriage presented a fruitful source of perjury and fraud and that claims for common law marriage are disfavored in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Court interpreted these comments by the Supreme Court as an indication that it could safely take to abolish the common law doctrine and create a bright line rule that establishes that marriage would only be recognized pursuant to the requirements outlined in the Pennsylvania Statutes. However, the Court also determined that the abolishment of the common law doctrine of marriage would be prospective and would not apply to the instant case. Thus, the Claimant in this case would receive the death benefits since the Court determined that substantial evidence supported the existence of the common marriage based upon the credible evidence found by the Workers’ Compensation Judge.
III. PRACTICAL HANDLING ADVICE: In any legal claim made by a surviving spouse, the claims examiner should secure a copy of the marriage license and other documents which comport with the establishment of a marriage, pursuant to the Pennsylvania statute. Under the Pennsylvania Marriage Law, a marriage is recognized by application for and receipt of a marriage license, followed by solemnization of the marriage by clergy, district justice, judge or magistrate. Alternatively, couples can solemnize their own marriage after obtaining certification that no legal impediment to the marriage exists.