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In a landmark decision, an en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court has decided to abolish the practice of common-law marriage in Pennsylvania. The ruling in PNC Bank Corp. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Stamos) followed a course of action the state Supreme Court had publicly considered in a 1998 opinion but failed to execute. “We hold that the time has come to abolish the doctrine,” Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, joined by President Judge James Gardner Colins and Judges Renee L. Cohn and Mary Hannah Leavitt, wrote in the majority’s opinion, “but [we also hold] that this decision should be given purely prospective effect,” meaning that the court’s decision will affect not the instant matter. (Judge Robert Simpson concurred in the majority’s result only without providing his own opinion). The case stems from the 1994 death of Janet Stamos, a PNC employee who was traveling on company business when her commercial flight crashed, according to the opinion. In 1997, John Kretz filed a fatal claim petition, stating that he had been Stamos’ common-law spouse. As evidence, Kretz, an ironworker by trade, produced a 1990 affidavit signed by both him and Stamos indicating their common-law marriage to one another and making Stamos a beneficiary of Kretz’s benefits under the Iron Workers Benefits Plans of Western Pennsylvania, according to the opinion . Though Kretz and Stamos, according to the opinion, had never owned any joint assets, had maintained separate bank accounts and mortgages, and had filed separate tax returns, a workers’ compensation judge still found sufficient evidence that a common-law marriage had existed between the two, and that Kretz was entitled to surviving spouse’s benefits. PNC appealed that decision, which was upheld by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, and then appealed that holding to the Commonwealth Court, PNC counsel said. In her opinion, Leadbetter cited various historical works and numerous opinions from courts around the country that argued that the practice of common-law marriage had lost its modern relevance, given the latter-day ease of obtaining a marriage license, and had instead become a source of fraudulent claims. “The circumstances creating a need for the doctrine are not present in today’s society,” Leadbetter wrote. “Access to both civil and religious authorities for a ceremonial marriage is readily available in even the most rural areas of the Commonwealth. The cost is minimal, and the process simple and relatively expedient.” Leadbetter also noted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 1998 decision in Staudenmayer v. Staudenmayer. In that case, the high court expressed “clearly articulated skepticism … regarding the continued viability of the common law marriage doctrine in Pennsylvania,” Leadbetter wrote, but stopped short of outright abolition because neither party had made such a request in the underlying complaint. “The only reason the Supreme Court in Staudenmayer stopped short of abolition was that the parties did not raise that possibility in the first instance,” said Joseph A. Fricker of Fricker & Associates in Pittsburgh, who represented PNC along with associate Cynthia Baker. “Essentially, what the Commonwealth Court did was adopt the language and reasoning of the Supreme Court in Staudenmayer to abolish the doctrine in a case in which [that remedy] had been raised.” Fricker said that as counsel for PNC’s workers’ compensation insurer, he had no special-interest agenda in proposing abolition, and only offered that solution as a means of winning the case at hand. Stamos’ attorney, Stephen J. O’Brien of Stephen O’Brien & Associates in Pittsburgh, expressed gratitude that the ruling had favored his client, but noted that the court’s decision would likely lead to further confusion. “From a legal standpoint, it’s preferable to have some sort of bright line ruling on the issue,” O’Brien said. “But the difficulty in abolishing common-law marriages is a lot like the problem with outlawing handguns: If you make them illegal, what do you do with everyone that has one? It seems like the court is saying that everyone who already has a common-law marriage is grandfathered in. But if future common-law marriages are prohibited, what is the exact date of prohibition?” Leadbetter noted in her opinion that the majority wrestled with the dilemma of how to apply the abolition, ultimately deciding that the decision should not affect the instant case, which she termed “purely prospective effect”. The majority apparently rejected what has been termed “prospective effect”, which means that the new rule applies to the instant case and litigation commenced afterward. “On balance, we believe [the relevant] factors favor purely prospective application in this case,” Leadbetter wrote. “Persons can arrange their affairs only for the present and future; retroactive application will not cure mistakes made in the past based on misunderstanding of the old law.” According to the opinion, retroactive application means that the new rule is applied to the instant case and all other cases then pending on direct review where the issue is raised. Some family law practitioners, however, believe that the court’s decision will do little to resolve future misunderstandings in the real world. “This decision puts a lot of poor and uneducated people at a disadvantage; that’s who it will affect mostly,” said Jack A. Rounick, a family law specialist at Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen. “The people you have to worry about are those who will come in for welfare benefits for children born out of a common-law marriage. … I know that some of the arguments [in favor of abolition] will be that we can educate people, but we have enough problems in this state educating our children, let alone the adults. … This decision might make things easier, but not necessarily better.” “It is the view of many public interest law centers that common-law marriage is a long-standing practice in Pennsylvania, and the concern with elimination is the potential impact on the ability of poor individuals to obtain certain types of services and benefits based on their marriages,” said Joseph Sullivan, director of the pro bono program at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis and co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s delivery of legal services committee. “Many of us are also concerned that certain individuals married under common law will not become aware of the change in the law and suffer as a result.” (Sullivan’s comments were his own and do not represent the bar association’s official stance on the issue.) Sara Lee Goren, a family lawyer and mediator in Fort Washington who holds a master’s in social work, was in favor of the court’s decision but noted that the ruling alone does not resolve the issue. “The Legislature would have to amend the statute in order for the abolition to go into effect; a case alone can’t do it,” said Goren, who is also a member of The Legal Intelligencer‘s editorial board. “Many people,” she said, “to their detriment, rely on having lived together a certain amount of time as a basis for their common-law marriage, and sometimes these people are shortchanged in terms of economic and property rights. If the practice is abolished, people would either formalize their relationship in some manner, or choose not to.” Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner, joined by Judge Dan Pellegrini, concurred with the majority’s decision to grant Kretz’s fatal claim petition, but dissented from the decision to go so far as to abolish the doctrine outright. “The majority usurps the function of the Legislature and casts upon the people of this Commonwealth a change in common law that the majority has no authority or power to impose,” Smith-Ribner wrote. “When the people desire to abolish common law marriages, they should do so through their elected representatives in the Legislature.” Fricker said that his client has not seen the opinion, and cannot comment on whether they will choose to appeal the court’s decision.

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