Common Law Marriage in Pennsylvania

A couple sitting together and watching a sunset

Common law marriage is an old rule that originally comes from England. The idea behind it is that a man and woman could be married simply because they represented themselves as a married couple enough times in public. Some states still follow this old English rule while others do not. Pennsylvania used to, but as of January 1, 2005, state legislators passed a law to do away with common law marriage.

So, if you’re going around representing yourself as married to someone else, this no longer makes you married in Pennsylvania. If, however, you met the requirements for common law marriage prior to January 1, 2005, your common law marriage is still valid.

What were the requirements for common law marriage?

There is a popular belief that a couple had to live together (cohabitate) for up to 7 years to be considered common law married. That is incorrect. Instead, it must be clear that you and your partner have presented yourselves as a married couple. This may include exchanging some sort of vows (even if there was no ceremony or marriage license), filing joint tax returns, or obtaining joint loans. You may also need witnesses to testify that you have represented yourselves as a married couple. And remember, this only applies if these things took place before January 1, 2005. Anything after that will be considered invalid.

Why did common law marriage exist in the first place?

If you’re not familiar with the concept of common law marriage, it may sound a little strange. Originally, the reason for common law marriage was to protect children who were born out of wedlock. Inheritance laws used to be set up in such a way that children did not receive certain rights unless their parents were part of a valid marriage. Common law marriage was a way for the courts to sort of say “Close enough,” and give those children inheritance rights.

Common Law Marriage and Inheritance

If you are married and you pass away, your assets are typically held in joint with your spouse. This means your spouse can take the joint assets, and anything you leave to your spouse, without inheritance tax. It’s not uncommon for a long-time girlfriend or boyfriend to try and claim common law marriage for this reason, even if they do not meet the requirements.

Estate planning is important.

Because of the complicated nature of proving a common law marriage, it’s important to get your estate plans in place. Whether you are common law married or not, an estate planning attorney can help you and your partner establish wills, trusts, and other important documents to ensure your assets go where you want them to go when you die. You may also be able to avoid inheritance taxes and putting your loved ones through the stress of a complicated probate process.

The estate planning attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm can help. We have experience with handling all kinds of estates, and we can help you create an estate plan that follows your wishes and provides for your loved ones. Call us today to get started.