Due to a change in Pennsylvania law, common law marriages are no longer recognized for relationships which began after January 1, 2005.  However, if a relationship began before January 1, 2005, it is still possible that the relationship will be legally recognized as a common law marriage.

With the above in mind, since there are still many relationships which began before January 1, 2005, this topic is still worthy of discussion.

So, what is a common law marriage? Quite simply, a common law marriage is a marriage which began without a formal marriage ceremony.

Historically, many people have been under the impression that a relationship qualified as a common law marriage if the man and woman could prove that they resided together for a certain number of years.  However, this has never been the case.  Rather, much more has always been required.

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Specifically, a common law marriage cannot be found to exist unless the court finds that the man and woman agreed to be husband and wife.  Such an agreement has been found to exist under various circumstances.

The most obvious circumstance is where a man and woman exchanged words agreeing to be husband and wife, but have not had a marriage ceremony conducted by a judicial or religious authority.

A less obvious circumstance which supports the finding of a common law marriage is where the man and woman have not exchanged words agreeing to be husband and wife, but have repeatedly referred to each other as husband and wife.  In these situations, the references can be either written or verbal.

An example of a verbal reference which may support the finding of a common law marriage is where a person introduces someone as their spouse at social functions. 

An example of a written reference which may support the finding of a common law marriage is where a person references someone as their spouse on insurance or retirement benefit forms. 

If such references have been routinely made, and neither the man or woman objects to these references, it is quite possible that the court will declare the man and woman to be common law husband and wife.

Needless to say, the importance of being declared common law husband and wife is that if the man and woman separate or divorce, they will have all rights and obligations which are possessed by formally married spouses who separate or divorce.  This includes rights and obligations in the nature of alimony and spousal support, as well as the right to claim, as marital property, a portion of the property which either spouse acquired during the course of their common law marriage.

Edward J. Coyle is an attorney with the Buzgon Davis Law Offices, 525 South Eighth Street, Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  His column appears the first Tuesday of each month.

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