What is considered a common-law marriage in Pennsylvania?

Common-law marriage, as opposed to a formal/ceremonial marriage, was once a permitted form of marriage in Pennsylvania.  In 2005, the Pennsylvania state legislature abolished the practice of common-law marriage1.  However, there was an additional part of the statute which stated that any common-law marriage formed before 2005 was still valid1.  In essence, couples that married in this manner could still be considered legally married as long as it happened before the statute was enacted.   Why is this relevant?  Because certain protections afforded to married couples are still legally valid even if the marriage was formed under the elements of common-law doctrine.  These protections are critical involving legal situations in which a marital partner is seeking benefits (Workers’ Compensation or SSDI, for example) after their partner is deceased or in divorce proceedings (asset division).

So what constitutes a common-law marriage?  There is certainly some ambiguity (which is a major reason why many states have stopped recognizing them altogether) when it comes to defining what a common-law marriage legally is, but Pennsylvania has set a rigorous, concrete standard through various court decisions in determining its legality.

These are the elements that the court generally considers as follows:

  • Clear and convincing evidence that there was an exchange of words/mutual agreement, stated in the present tense, between the two parties that they were intending to marry.
  • After said agreement, the parties lived together for a period of time.
  • Documents such as tax records, leases that listed the parties as a marital couple.
  • Outside observers (friends, family) viewed the couple as being married.

To note, a person attempting to prove that a common-law marriage did exist between two parties does not need to meet all of these elements but these are generally what the court looks at to determine if the relationship between two partners is significant enough to be lawfully considered as marriage.  There is a high burden of proof that must be met in order for a common-law marriage to be considered legal.

To see what other states consider a common-law marriage, please read: “https://www.deseret.com/indepth/2019/9/4/20812800/the-problem-with-common-law-marriage-its-usually-about-divorce

Sources:

1 23 Pa. C.S. § 1103