Pennsylvania Superior Court recognizes same-sex common-law marriage

In a recent decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has recognized a same-sex, common-law marriage when the marriage was entered into before the abolishment of common-law marriage in 2005.

In Re: Estate of Stephen Carter Appeal of: Michael Hunter, No. 1126 WDA 2016 (April 17, 2017), Petitioner, Michael Hunter, appealed from a July 8, 2016, Order of the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas denying his Petition for a Declaration that he and his late partner, Stephen Carter, had entered into a common-law marriage prior to January 1, 2005.  In February of 1996, Hunter and Carter met and began a 17-year relationship.  In December of 1996, Hunter proposed to Carter who accepted. Two months later, Carter and Hunter exchanged rings.  One year later, Hunter and Carter celebrated their first wedding anniversary which they proceeded to do on February 18th of each year.  In March of 1999, Hunter and Carter purchased a home together in Philadelphia with a joint mortgage in their names.  They prepared and executed mutual wills and named each other as executors.  Hunter and Carter executed mutual financial and healthcare Powers of Attorney and designated each other as agent-in-fact.  They also held joint banking and investment accounts.  Hunter and Carter considered themselves married as of February 18, 1997, and held themselves out as married.

In April of 2013, Carter died from injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident. Two months later, the United States Supreme Court issued the decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), which struck down provisions of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act defining “marriage” as only between one man and one woman.

On May 17, 2016, Hunter filed a Petition seeking a Declaration that he and Carter had entered into common-law marriage prior to January 1, 2005, the date after which the commencement of common-law marriages were no longer recognized in Pennsylvania.  The trial court denied the Petition on two (2) grounds.  First, the trial court found that same-sex couples did not have the right to marry in Pennsylvania until May of 2014.  Second, the trial court concluded that Hunter had failed to meet his burden of establishing a common-law marriage under Pennsylvania law.

On Appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed and remanded.  The Superior Court held that the United States Constitution mandates that same-sex couples have the same right to prove a common-law marriage as do opposite-sex couples.  Petitioner did not seek to exercise a new right, but rather a right that has always been guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  Furthermore, it was found that Hunter had met his burden of proving the existence of a common-law marriage.

Questions regarding this case can be directed to Sean P. Buggy, Esquire.

Sean P. Buggy

Office: King of Prussia, Philadelphia
Phone: (610) 977-2975
Practice Areas: Third Party, UM/UIM, Premises Liability, Products Liability,
Construction Litigation, Dram Shop/Liquor Liability, Appellate Practice, General Liability