In a published decision issued early last week, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that same-sex couples have the same right to prove a common law marriage as do opposite-sex couples. This decision, In re Estate of Stephen Carter, 2017 Pa. Super. 104 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017), authored by Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton, Jr., is another significant step towards achieving equal treatment of same-sex couples under the law.
Pennsylvania recognizes two types of marriage: ceremonial and common law. While a ceremonial marriage is performed by a religious or civil authority, a common law marriage, often made without any familiar wedding formalities, is an express agreement between the parties without ceremony that the two individuals are wed. In 2005, Pennsylvania’s state legislature prospectively abolished the doctrine of common law marriage. However, the Pennsylvania Marriage Law still permits the legal recognition of common law marriages entered into prior to 2005.
Stephen Carter died in a motorcycle accident in April 2013. Although then-existing law prevented the two men from being married in a ceremonial marriage in Pennsylvania during Carter’s lifetime, Michael Hunter petitioned the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas seeking a declaration that Hunter and Carter had entered into a common law marriage prior to its abolishment by the state legislature in 2005. The evidence concerning the relationship between Carter and Hunter seemed to support Hunter’s cause: On Christmas Day 1996, Hunter proposed to Carter and gave him a diamond ring. Several months later, on February 18, 1997, Carter gave Hunter a ring in return, with the date engraved. Over the next 17 years, they shared a mutual life and lived together in Philadelphia, celebrating their wedding anniversary on February 18 of each year. Hunter and Carter would later purchase a home together with a joint mortgage in both their names, execute mutual wills and financial and healthcare powers of attorney. They also held joint financial accounts and supported each other financially. Their families treated Hunter and Carter as spouses and did not oppose the petition. Nevertheless, the trial judge rejected Hunter’s petition, holding it “legally impossible” that the two were married under the common law because, under then-existing precedent in Pennsylvania, it was “never legal for same-sex couples to enter into a common law marriage.”
The Superior Court disagreed. Relying on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), which struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of “marriage” as only between one man and one woman, and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015), which declared all state laws prohibiting marriage between same-sex partners as unconstitutional, the Superior Court held that “same sex couples have precisely the same capacity to enter marriage contracts as do opposite-sex couples, and a court today may not rely on the now-invalidated provisions of the Marriage Law to deny that constitutional reality.”
As a result, albeit twenty-years late, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will now legally recognize the marriage of Michael Hunter and Stephen Carter.
The attorneys at Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba have extensive experience representing clients on a variety of matters in Pennsylvania’s trial and appellate courts. For more information, please contact John A. Weiss, Jr., or any other attorney in our Litigation & Trial Practice.