What Is Common Law Marriage?

What is common law marriage? Am I in one right now? Can I get out of mine? A common law marriage is a marriage that was simply never recognized legally or religiously, and was entered into informally. Therefore, if you are in a common law marriage, then you are in a legal marriage and if the marriage ends then you have to legally divorce, and if necessary, go through equitable distribution and support proceedings. The reason that common law marriage was necessary in the past was because it used to be burdensome for people to go to town hall to get married. In the days before mass transportation and before people began to move into the cities, getting a marriage license could prove to be too difficult and expensive for people living in small villages with only their horse for transportation. These days, most people have some way of getting to their nearest courthouse to get a marriage license. For this reason, Common Law marriage was deemed to no longer be necessary.

Starting January 1, 2005, common law marriage was legally abolished in Pennsylvania. That means that if you believe that your common law marriage began after that date, then you are not married. If you believe that your common law marriage began before January 1, 2005, then you may be married.

For obvious reasons, common law marriage is usually questioned either when a couple is trying to get divorced, or when one spouse dies and the other is trying to inherit. To determine if a couple is common law married, the Court will look at whether the couple exchanged words expressing “a present intent to be married” and whether they “held themselves out as married” to their community. Words expressing a present intent to be married do not have to be specific words, as long as they have an express intention of creating a legal marital relationship. “Holding yourself out as married” means that you refer to yourself as husband and wife in public, perhaps you share a bank account, one spouse took the other’s name, you exchange anniversary cards, you live together, etc.

The determination of the existence of a common law marriage is factual. If both putative spouses are alive and are able to testify, then they must testify both that they exchanged words expressing their present intent to be married, as well as holding themselves out as married. If one putative spouse is dead or otherwise unable to testify, then if the testifying spouse presents evidence of cohabitation and that they held themselves out as married, then it creates a presumption of marriage that another party can rebut.

Whether you are in a ceremonial marriage or a common law marriage, contact our experienced Pittsburgh family law attorneys to discuss your case!

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