Understanding Common Law Marriage in Pennsylvania

Does your relationship constitute as marriage?

Many misconceptions and myths exist about common law marriage.  Difficult to understand and even harder to define, the state of Pennsylvania no longer recognizes common law marriage.  For couples curious if they qualify as “married” under common law, consider it a moot subject if you started dating after January 1, 2005.  That is the date common law marriage in Pennsylvania was abolished.

This does not affect or change the outcome for couples who were together prior to that time.  Those relationships are still arguably valid marriages under common law – key term here is arguable.

And argue we do.  Couples often run into this question when they decide to split.  Hoping to obtain the same rights as traditionally recognized marriages during divorce, an individual may have to prove he or she was married despite the lack of a marriage certificate.  The validity of a common law marriage is a question of both fact and law.

Pennsylvania looks to case law for the definitions and standards required to prove a common law marriage.  One key piece involves intent – the present intent of the parties to form a marriage contract is the crucial element in proving a valid common law marriage in Pennsylvania. David v. Bellevue Locust Garage, et al., 12 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 602, 317 A.2d 341 (Commw. Ct. 1974).

The requirements of common law marriage rely on exchange of verba in praesenti (by words of the present tense), constant cohabitation and a general and broad reputation of marriage.  When the parties are available to testify to the exchange of verba in praesenti, the party claiming common law marriage must prove verba in praesenti with clear and convincing evidence.

The relevance of evidence of constant cohabitation and reputation of marriage is only to support a claim when faced with contradictory testimony regarding verba in praesenti.  Someone trying to prove a common law marriage may have dozens of documents such as beneficiary information, or bills, etc. that have resulted from cohabitation over many years.  What is most interesting based on the above, is that documentation as evidence alone is not enough.  The present intent of both parties to form a marriage has to be proven.

The common law marriage contract does not require any specific form of words, and all that is essential is proof of an agreement to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time. Estate of Gavula 490 Pa. 535, 540, 417 A.2d 168, 171 (1980).

If you are handling a situation where the existence of a marriage is at question, call our office to speak with an attorney who can help you, (215) 942-2100.