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In the latest word on common law marriage in Pennsylvania, a Superior Court panel has ruled that trial courts across the state — absent a contrary ruling from the state Supreme Court — must abide by the Commonwealth Court’s abolishment of the doctrine. The panel issued its holding in Stackhouse v. Stackhouse despite a separate Superior Court panel’s decision earlier this year declining to follow the Commonwealth Court’s fall 2003 ruling in PNC Bank v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board. In reaching their decision, the members of the Stackhouse panel — Judges Richard B. Klein and Jack A. Panella and Senior Judge Justin Johnson — declined to take a position on the viability of common law marriage in Pennsylvania. “Although we agree that the decisions of the Commonwealth Court are not controlling in matters before the Superior Court, they remain precedential in trial courts across the Commonwealth,” Johnson wrote for the majority. “Thus, absent affirmative direction from the Supreme Court rejecting the holding in PNC Bank, we cannot conclude that the trial court erred, per se, in applying it.” In declining to follow the tack taken by the panel in Bell v. Ferraro, the Stackhouse majority concluded the Bell panel misread Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent addressing common law marriage. In the April opinion in Bell, President Judge Joseph A. Del Sole wrote in a footnote that the Superior Court is not bound by the decisions of the Commonwealth Court and that the state Supreme Court, in its 1998 opinion in Staudenmayer v. Staudenmayer, condemned the practice of common law marriage but deferred action on the issue to the Legislature. Johnson noted in his opinion in Stackhouse that a thorough inspection of the Staudenmayer opinion reveals no “call for legislative action.” “Moreover, the [ Staudenmayer] opinion does not appear even to acknowledge a legislative role in the perpetuation of this court-created doctrine,” Johnson wrote. “Accordingly, we are not convinced that the reference in Bell, upon which Nina [Stackhouse] relies to show trial court error, is sufficient to achieve its assigned task.” Family law practitioner Jack Rounick of Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen said that Pennsylvania’s trial courts might have recently been confused as to how to address common law marriage cases, given apparently conflicting appellate court opinions on the topic. “The Legislature is hopefully going to take care of the problem,” Rounick said. “That would be the easy way out.” Senate Bill 985 — which would prospectively abolish common law marriage in Pennsylvania from Jan. 1, 2005, on — was passed by the state Senate in May and is now being considered by relevant House committees, according to the General Assembly’s legislative records. Although it decided that the trial court properly applied PNC Bank, the Stackhouse panel held that the PNC Bank decision applies prospectively from the date of its filing, Sept. 13, 2003. The court therefore reversed a York County trial court’s determination that Nina Stackhouse’s divorce complaint was precluded by PNC Bank. According to Johnson’s opinion, Nina Stackhouse claimed that in April 1993, she and Joseph Stackhouse had exchanged vows during a private ceremony in Canada without obtaining a marriage license. The couple resided together in York, Pa.; she took his name and they filed joint tax returns. In October 2003, Nina filed for divorce, seeking equitable distribution and alimony. In March, the trial judge granted a motion from Joseph to dismiss Nina’s complaint on the basis of PNC Bank, according to the opinion. In concluding that it was proper for the trial court to apply the Commonwealth Court precedent, Johnson sated, “We assume no position on the holding or rationale of the Commonwealth Court in PNC Bank, nor do we reach a conclusion concerning the viability of common law marriage in Pennsylvania.” The judges then concluded that PNC Bank should be applied only to common law marriages performed after the date of that decision, noting that the en banc panel in PNC Bank had specifically provided for prospective application of its holding. “Regardless of the date on which a party filed her action, the fact remains that if she entered a common law marriage prior to Sept. 13, 2003, she acquired myriad legal rights and entitlements associated with that status,” Johnson wrote. He added later, “Although the validity of common law unions entered after the date of decision in PNC Bank may rightly be questioned by any party, those entered before its date of decision are entitled to enforcement of any right they formerly enjoyed regardless of the date on which their action is commenced or review of their claims undertaken. Plainly stated, such marriages are ‘grandfathered.’” The case has been remanded for further proceedings. In a concurring statement, Klein wrote that because the Superior Court might not choose to follow the Commonwealth Court’s analysis in PNC Bank, he and his fellow judges should “hesitate to approach this issue in this case, even in dicta.” PNC Bank was not appealed to the Supreme Court, he noted, because the case’s “losing party” was not negatively impacted by the Commonwealth Court’s decision. “I recognize the trouble that conflicting decisions of the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court present to trial judges and trial lawyers,” Klein wrote. “However … I am very reluctant to accord PNC Bank any credence until the issue is argued before our court in a manner that will permit an appeal to the Supreme Court.” Joseph Stackhouse’s lawyer, Daniel Fennick of Anderson Converse & Fennick in York, said that his client has not yet decided whether to appeal the panel’s decision. If upheld, prospective application of PNC Bank could open the door to potentially fraudulent claims of common law marriage for many years to come, according to Fennick. “The Superior Court is saying that someone in 2040 can [falsely] say they were part of a common law marriage in 2002,” Fennick said. Nina Stackhouse was represented by Thomas O’Shea of CGA Law Firm in York. O’Shea said that the seemingly conflicting decisions issued by the state’s two appellate courts have left people like his client unsure of their past or current marital statuses. “Quite frankly, it’s a terrible situation,” O’Shea said. “People should be able to find out if they’re married or not.”

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