Appeal from Judgment of the Court of Commons Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, of Jefferson County, No. 63, 1982, O.C.
Nicholas F. Lorenzo, Jr., Punxsutawney, for appellant.
David Blakley, DuBois, for appellee.
Wieand, Cirillo and Johnson, JJ. Johnson, J., files a dissenting opinion.
[ 345 Pa. Super. Page 232]
The sole issue in this appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence to prove the existence of a common law marriage. The Orphans' Court in Jefferson County concluded that Adele Baldwin, the appellant, had failed to establish that she was the common law wife of the decedent, Mike Kovalchick. Therefore, the court denied appellant the right to take against the decedent's will. We affirm.
After the will of Mike Kovalchick, deceased, had been admitted to probate, Adele Baldwin, alleging that she was Kovalchick's widow, filed an election to take against his will. A master was appointed and conducted an evidentiary hearing, at which conflicting testimony was presented. The master decided the credibility issue adversely to appellant and recommended to the court that it find that appellant and the decedent had not been married. Exceptions were filed and argued, but the court accepted the master's recommendations and found that appellant had failed to prove a common law marriage.
The burden of proving the alleged marriage was on appellant. Estate of Gavula, 490 Pa. 535, 540, 417 A.2d 168, 171 (1980). Because the courts have regarded common law marriage as a fruitful source of fraud and perjury, common law marriages are to be tolerated but not encouraged. In re Estate of Stauffer, 504 Pa. 626, 629, 476 A.2d 354, 356 (1984); Estate of Gavula, supra; Wagner's Estate, 398 Pa. 531, 533, 159 A.2d 495, 497 (1960). Therefore, "the law imposes a heavy burden on one who grounds his or her claim on an allegation of common law marriage. This is especially so where one of the parties is dead and the claim, so grounded, is to share in the distribution of the estate." Estate of Gavula, supra, 490 Pa. at 540-541, 417 A.2d at 171. Accord: In re Estate of Stauffer, supra; Manfredi Estate, 399 Pa. 285, 159 A.2d 697 (1960); Baker v. Mitchell, 143 Pa. Super. 50, 17 A.2d 738 (1941).
In the instant case, the orphans' court found that there had not been a common law marriage. That finding,
[ 345 Pa. Super. Page 233]
if supported by competent evidence, is entitled to the same weight as the verdict of a jury. A decree based thereon will not be reversed in the absence of an abuse of discretion or an error of law. In re Cummings Estate, 330 Pa. Super. 255, 261, 479 A.2d 537, 541 (1984).
Appellant testified that in June, 1981 she and the decedent had gone to a family altar in the woods behind decedent's home and there exchanged marriage vows. She produced witnesses who testified that following June, 1981, the decedent had told them of the marriage and referred to appellant as his wife. There was other evidence, however, that decedent had stated, even after June, 1981, that marriage was not for him and that he would never marry. At his funeral, appellant had referred to herself as the decedent's fiancee. Appellant conceded that the decedent had not generally acknowledged their marriage in public, primarily because his relatives did not care for her. She testified that she had moved into the decedent's home in 1977 and that she had lived there with him off and on until 1980. After 1981, she said, "we really lived together, very much." This testimony was corroborated by witnesses called by appellant who had visited decedent's home and had observed her there. It was contradicted, however, by relatives of the decedent who had lived near the decedent and had visited him regularly. They testified that there had been periods of varying duration when appellant had not been present in the decedent's home and that when she had been present, appellant had assumed the role of housekeeper and occupied a separate bedroom.
Marriage is a civil contract in Pennsylvania. "The contract does not require any specific form of words, and all that is essential is proof of an agreement to enter the legal relationship of marriage at the present time." Estate of Gavula, supra, 490 Pa. at 540, 417 A.2d at 171. Accord: In re Estate of Garges, 474 Pa. 237, 378 A.2d 307 (1977). Because it is often difficult to prove a civil contract of ...