Appeal from Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, of Bradford County, No. 7 August Term, 1984.
David B. Keeffe, Sayre, for appellant.
Wieand, Montemuro and Johnson, JJ.
[ 361 Pa. Super. Page 189]
The Register of Wills of Bradford County issued letters of administration in the Estate of Ronald A. Dodge, deceased, to Tonia K. Yoder, whose petition averred that she was the widow of the decedent. Deborah Lynn Martin, the mother and natural guardian of the decedent's son, Ryan Shaw Dodge, filed a petition to revoke the letters which had
[ 361 Pa. Super. Page 190]
been granted to Ms. Yoder. She alleged that Ms. Yoder had never been married to the decedent and had no interest in his estate. Following an evidentiary hearing, the Register of Wills found that a common law marriage existed between Yoder and the decedent and denied the petition to revoke the letters of administration previously issued. Martin then appealed to the Orphans' Court of Bradford County, as permitted by 20 Pa.C.S. § 908(a). The Orphans' Court refused a request for a hearing de novo and limited its review to the record established before the Register of Wills. The court found that the Register of Wills had abused her discretion, that Ms. Yoder's evidence was insufficient to prove a common law marriage, and that the letters of administration should be revoked. Yoder appealed from the order revoking her appointment as administratrix.
The statute commits to the Register of Wills, in the first instance, the duty to issue letters of administration. See: 20 Pa.C.S. § 3155(b). On appeal from the Register's action, where additional evidence is not received, judicial review is confined to a determination of whether the Register abused his or her discretion in the issuance of letters to an administrator. In re Schulz Estate, 392 Pa. 117, 123, 139 A.2d 560, 563 (1958). See also: In re Wertz' Estate, 6 Pa.D. & C.2d 429 (York 1955). Compare: In re Padelford's Estate, 189 Pa. 634, 42 A. 287 (1899) (appeal from Register's grant of letters of administration brought the matter de novo before the orphans' court).
In the instant case, we agree with the Orphans' Court that the Register of Wills abused her discretion when she refused to revoke the letters of administration previously granted to Ms. Yoder. The Orphans' Court concluded that Yoder's evidence was insufficient to prove a common law marriage with the decedent. We do not necessarily disagree with the Orphans' Court's conclusion. Whether Yoder will ultimately be able to prove a common law marriage for purposes of establishing a right to inherit, however, is
[ 361 Pa. Super. Page 191]
not determinative. It is enough for present purposes that the nature of Yoder's claim and the equivocal evidence which she offered in support of a common law marriage suggested most strongly that she was not an appropriate person to administer the decedent's estate.
"Our courts have regarded common law marriage as a fruitful source of fraud and perjury and, thus, the law imposes a heavy burden on one who grounds a claim upon the existence of a common law marriage." In re Cummings Estate, 330 Pa. Super. 255, 265 n. 3, 479 A.2d 537, 542-543 n. 3 (1984). "This is especially so where the lips of one of the parties to the alleged marriage have been sealed by death . . . ." Id., citing In re Estate of Gavula, 490 Pa. 535, 540-541, 417 A.2d 168, 171 (1980); In re Manfredi Estate, 399 Pa. 285, 292, 159 A.2d 697, 701 (1960); In re Osterling's Estate, 323 Pa. 23, 28, 185 A. 790, 792 (1936). When an attempt is made to establish a marriage without the usual formalities, a court is required to examine the purported marriage contract with great scrutiny. In re Estate of Gavula, supra; In re Manfredi Estate, supra.
The courts will find a valid common law marriage if there is sufficient evidence to prove that it was the parties' intent to enter a marriage relationship in praesenti. In re Cummings Estate, supra, 330 Pa. Super. at 263, 479 A.2d at 541. Constant cohabitation of a man and woman together with a general reputation as husband and wife may raise an inference that the parties have contracted a common law marriage. In re Estate of Garges, 474 Pa. 237, 241, 378 A.2d 307, 309 (1977); In re Manfredi Estate, supra, 399 Pa. at 291, 159 A.2d at 700; In re Cummings Estate, supra, 330 Pa. Super. at 263, 479 A.2d at 542. However, an inference of marriage does not arise from ...