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Common Law Marriage

Our Pittsburgh law office recently received an inquiry as to whether common law marriage is still recognized in Pennsylvania. While the short answer is no, the truth is slightly more complicated.

The purpose of a common law marriage was to solemnize marriage for people who were not formally churched or lived too far from places where public officials could marry them. For a common law marriage to be recognized, it required only the capacity to marry (i.e., being of sufficient age and mental capacity) and the intent to marry. Therefore, in Pennsylvania, a marriage could be recognized if the participants were of the appropriate age and expressed "words of present intention" to be married.

As time passed, states began to do away with common law marriages because they were being utilized as instruments for fraud. For example, a woman living with a man could come forward following his death and assert that they had a common law marriage and make claims regarding his estate, workers compensation or the like. In Pennsylvania, it was not until 2003 that the doctrine was abolished.

The Commonwealth Court, in 2003, issued a ruling in PNC Bank Corp. v. Worker's Compensation Appeal Board stating that Pennsylvania would no longer recognize common law marriages formed after the court decision. This rule was later adopted as statute effective January 2, 2005.

Therefore, one can not claim a common law marriage if the relationship began any time after January 2, 2005. If the relationship began before that date, a couple may assert that they are married if there was an exchange of words or vows that was clearly intended to establish that the couple assumed the bonds of marriage.

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