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Common Law Marriage

As of January 2, 2005, individuals were no longer able to enter into Common Law Marriages in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, those Common Law Marriages entered into before this date remain valid. The following information pertains to such marriages.

A Common Law Marriage, although not formalized through a structured ceremony, is considered a valid marriage provided it met the requirements set forth by Pennsylvania law, and provided that the requirements were met prior to January 2, 2005.

There is a misconception that the parties must live together for a specific number of years for a Common Law Marriage to occur. This is not so.

For a Common Law Marriage to occur, the parties must have no legal barriers to marry one another. Just one example of a legal barrier would be that one of the parties is already married. It was also required that the parties be 18 years of age or older and be of opposite sexes. Further, the parties must have stated, in the present tense, their intention to marry one another. A present tense statement would have been, "I marry you today" or another similarly worded phrase, rather than stating intentions to marry at a future time.

If any legal barriers to the marriage existed, then no Common Law Marriage could have occurred. After the removal of any barriers, the parties would have been free to enter into a Common Law Marriage prior to January 2, 2005. It is also required that the parties be 18 years of age or older and be of opposite sexes.

The individual attempting to prove the existence of a Common Law Marriage has the burden of proof. The Court will look for "clear and convincing evidence" when determining whether the marriage existed. Since there is no license required for a Common Law Marriage, providing proof can be challenging. The Court must look to all factors that exist in support the claim of marriage, such as deeds to real estate, marital status on court documents, and a reputation of marriage not limited to close friends and relatives. The length of the relationship and the views about the couple's marital status by the community do not constitute marriage unless the other requirements for Common Law Marriage are met. The Court will then render a decision on the existence of the marriage.

Once established, the same formalities are required to dissolve a Common Law Marriage as would be required to dissolve one that had been formalized by a ceremony.

This is a complicated area of law and decisions are made by the Court on a case-to-case basis. It is essential to have an attorney evaluate all matters related to Common Law Marriages, and the information in this message is very general and not intended to apply to specific, individual situations.

If you need to consult with an attorney regarding common law marriage, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.