THE END OF COMMON LAW MARRIAGE

By Norma Chase, Esq.
 

On Sept. 17, 2003, in PNC Bank v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, the Commonwealth Court issued an en banc decision prospectively abolishing common law marriage, but granting the fatal claim petition in the case before the court. The court held that the claimant, John Kretz, had established a common law marriage with Janet Stamos, who died in Sept. 1994 in the crash of Flight 427 while traveling on business for PNC.

 

In Dec. 1990, the couple had jointly executed an affidavit for employee benefits purposes that stated that they had entered into a common law marriage on June 15, 1988. The court concluded that the discussions the couple had when they executed the affidavit, together with the act of executing the affidavit, satisfied the “words of present intent” standard, notwithstanding that the past date referenced in the affidavit was one on which Ms. Stamos had been married to another man. (Mr. Kretz testified that the date was a mistake, and that they meant to say 1989).

 

The majority opinion was authored by Judge Bonnie Leadbetter and and was joined by Judge Colins, Judge Cohn and Judge Leavitt. Judge Simpson concurred in the result. Judge Smith-Ribner concurred in the majority’s conclusion that the claimant had proven the existence of a common law marriage, but dissented from the decision to abolish common law marriage. Her opinion was joined by Judge Pellegrini.

 

The court describes its decision as being “fully prospective.” Presumably this means that common law marriages entered into prior to 9:16 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2003, will be recognized in the future, notwithstanding that the opinion states “[H]enceforth, this court will recognize as valid only those Pennsylvania marriages entered into pursuant to the Marriage Law procedures.”  (Footnote omitted.)

 

It remains to be seen whether, first PNC will seek allowance of appeal from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania; second, the Supreme Court will exercise its King Bench jurisdiction sua sponte; or third, the legislature will abrogate the decision.

 

With respect to common law marriages already in existence, the opinion states that evidence of cohabitation and reputation only may be introduced when evidence of words of present intent is unavailable (the typical situation being an estate case where the Dead Man's Act precludes the survivor from testifying on the issue) or when there is contradictory evidence on that issue. Since it is rare for a third party to be in a position to contradict testimony by a survivor as to the exchange of the requisite words, this may adversely impact those future workers’ compensation death benefit claimants who are presently in common law marriages. They may be limited to testifying to the exchange of words and be disallowed from introducing corroborative evidence of cohabitation and community reputation. The issue is one to watch.