Appeals Court Tosses Keystone State Common-Law Marriages

September 19, 2003 ( - Ruling in a case involving a death benefits claim by a common-law spouse, a Pennsylvania appeals court has thrown out the legal doctrine of common-law marriage in the Keystone State.

>Judges of the Commonwealth Court said in their majority opinion that there was no longer a modern-day need to legally recognize common-law relationships because it is now easy to obtain a marriage license and common-law marriage claims sometimes lead to fraud, according to The Legal Intelligencer.

“We hold that the time has come to abolish the doctrine,” wrote Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter. “…The circumstances creating a need for the doctrine are not present in today’s society, Access to both civil and religious authorities for a ceremonial marriage is readily available in even the most rural areas of the Commonwealth. The cost is minimal, and the process simple and relatively expedient.”

The judges said their ruling on common-law marriages – which only affects Pennsylvania – will solely be applied in future cases and did not affect the dispute involving PNC Bank Corp. employee Janet Stamos, who died in a 1994 commercial plane crash while traveling on business.

However, the court did grant the death-benefits claim request from John Kretz, who said he had been Stamos’ common-law spouse. As evidence, Kretz, an ironworker by trade, produced a 1990 affidavit signed by both him and Stamos indicating their common-law marriage to one another and making Stamos a beneficiary of Kretz’s benefits under the Iron Workers Benefits Plans of Western Pennsylvania, according to the opinion .

Though Kretz and Stamos had never owned any joint assets, had maintained separate bank accounts and mortgages, and had filed separate tax returns, a workers’ compensation judge still found enough evidence that a common-law marriage had existed between the two, and that Kretz was entitled to surviving spouse’s benefits. PNC appealed that decision, which was upheld by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, and then appealed that holding to the Commonwealth Court, PNC counsel said.

Stamos’ attorney, Stephen O’Brien expressed gratitude that the ruling had favored his client, but noted that the court’s decision would likely lead to further confusion.

“T he difficulty in abolishing common-law marriages is a lot like the problem with outlawing handguns: If you make them illegal, what do you do with everyone that has one?” O’Brien told the Legal Intelligencer. “It seems like the court is saying that everyone who already has a common-law marriage is grandfathered in. But if future common-law marriages are prohibited, what is the exact date of prohibition?”

The case is P NC Bank Corp. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Stamos).