Since the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act by the United States Supreme Court, many state courts have been trying to fill in the legal vacuum created between the legality of same-sex marriage and the lack of codified law through legislation.
Though many Courts of Common Pleas have taken on issues, it really requires good appellate decisions to establish precedential authority on an issue. This can take time since it requires the confluence of good facts applied to the right law (or lack thereof) to bring an issue in dispute and litigants prepared to take it to the appellate level. Consequently, it has taken time for cases dealing with nuanced same-sex marriage and other issues to make their way into the appellate system for determination, but with two years removed from the Obergefell case, we are starting to see these cases decided by the Superior and Supreme courts. In fact, just last December we saw the Superior Court reverse a Philadelphia County decision and establish that a civil union will be afforded the same access to the Family Courts as a marriage.
Recently, the issue of whether there can be a valid common law same-sex marriage was addressed by the Superior Court in In Re: Estate of Carter, S., Appeal of: Hunter, M. This is an issue which some county courts have addressed, but no further guidance from the appellate courts. The Carter case involves the widower of a spouse killed in motorcycle accident. In an action supported by the families of the couple, Michael Hunter sought exclusion from paying the 15% inheritance tax on the basis that he was Mr. Carter’s spouse and they had a valid common law marriage going back to 1997. It should be noted that common law marriage was abolished in Pennsylvania is 2005, but common law marriages established prior to that time are valid, while same-sex marriage was not legalized in Pennsylvania until 2014.
The trial court, relying on the illegality of same-sex marriage until 2014 and abolishment of common-law marriage in 2005 held that Mr. Hunter proved neither the basis for a common-law marriage and, if he had, he was precluded from being grandfathered into common-law marriage because of the 2014 effective date of the legality of same-sex marriage. Essentially, he barred Mr. Hunter’s claim by law and fact.
On appeal, the Superior Court found that the trial court erred and that Hunter and Carter did, in fact, establish a common law marriage. They considered the couple’s 1997 exchange of rings and words of intention to be married, as well their attempt to utilize every available legal means to protect their rights and mutually rely on each other (i.e. serving as medical and financial powers of attorney; being beneficiaries to each other’s policies; having joint financial accounts; owning property together).
More pointedly, the Superior Court held that due to judicial precedent, same-sex couples have the same right to marriage as opposite-sex couples and the court cannot rely on an invalidated provision of the Marriage Law to deny Mr. Carter’s rights through common-law marriage. In other words, once same-sex marriage was legalized in 2014, the courts cannot retroactively bar couples similarly situated as Hunter and Carter from demonstrating a common-law marriage prior to 2005. Same-sex couples should have always had the right to marriage; therefore, you cannot bar a common law marriage claim on the basis that the right was “established” in 2014.