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In re Estate of Carter

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 17, 2017


         Appeal from the Order Entered July 8, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County Orphans' Court at No(s): 04-13-00540

          BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., SHOGAN, J., and MOULTON, J.


          MOULTON, J.

         Michael Hunter appeals from the July 8, 2016 order of the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas denying Hunter's petition for a declaration that he and his late partner, Stephen Carter, had entered into a common law marriage prior to January 1, 2005.[1] Because the United States Constitution mandates that same-sex couples have the same right to prove a common law marriage as do opposite-sex couples, and because we conclude that Hunter met his burden of proving a common law marriage, we reverse and remand.

         Hunter and Carter met in February 1996 at a social event in Philadelphia and began dating a few days later. N.T., 7/5/16, at 8. During the course of their ensuing 17-year relationship, they shared a mutual enjoyment of rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, and hiking. Id. at 9. In July 1996, Hunter and Carter began living together in Carter's home in Philadelphia. Id. at 9-10.

         On Christmas Day 1996, Hunter proposed to Carter and gave him a diamond ring. Id. at 12. Hunter bent down on one knee and asked, "Will you marry me?" to which Carter replied, "Yes." Id. Two months later, on February 18, 1997, Carter gave Hunter a ring in return; the ring was engraved, "February 18, 1997." Id. at 12-13, 41. One year later, Hunter and Carter celebrated their first wedding anniversary, a ritual they repeated on February 18 of each year for the next 16 years. See id. at 41-42.

         In March 1999, Hunter and Carter purchased a home together in Philadelphia with a joint mortgage in both of their names. Id. at 13-15. They prepared and executed mutual wills, in which each named the other as executor. Id. at 19-20, 29. They executed mutual financial and health care powers of attorney, in which each designated the other as his agent-in-fact. Id. at 19-21, 28-29 & Exs. H-K. They also supported each other financially and held joint banking and investment accounts. Id. at 26-28. At various points in their relationship, each served as the sole wage earner while the other advanced his education. Id. at 16-17, 25-26. The couple later moved to the Pittsburgh area and jointly purchased a home there. Id. at 17-18.

         Both of their families treated Hunter and Carter as spouses, with Carter's nieces referring to Hunter as "Uncle Mike." Id. at 23, 38-39. Hunter and Carter considered themselves married as of February 18, 1997 and referred to each other as spouses from that day forward. Id. at 41.

         In April 2013, Carter died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Id. at 18, 29. His death occurred less than two months before the United States Supreme Court's landmark decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), which struck down the provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA") defining "marriage" as only between one man and one woman.

         On May 17, 2016, Hunter filed a petition seeking a declaration that he and Carter had entered into a common law marriage prior to January 1, 2005, the date after which common law marriages were no longer recognized in Pennsylvania. See supra n.1. On July 5, 2016, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing, at which Hunter, Carter's sister, and a friend of the couple testified in support of the petition.[2] Notably, the petition was unopposed. Neither any member of Carter's family nor any government agency objected to the requested declaration. Both the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue and the United States Social Security Administration expressly declined to participate in the proceedings, despite the possible financial consequences arising from the legal determination of Hunter and Carter's marital status. Despite the lack of opposition, on July 8, 2016, the trial court entered an order denying the petition.

         In its opinion, the trial court offered two grounds for its decision. First, the trial court held:

[S]ame-sex couples did not have the right to marry in Pennsylvania until May of 2014. See Whitewood v. Wolf, 992 F.Supp.2d 410, 424 (M.D. Pa. 2014), appeal dismissed sub nom. Whitewood v. Sec. Pa. Dept. of Health, 621 Fed.Appx. 141 (3d Cir. 2015)(unpublished). Because of this, it was never legal for same-sex couples to enter into a common law marriage, even if they met the requirements of Staudenmayer [v. Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d 1016 (Pa. 1998), ] and established a relationship prior to abolishment [of common law marriage] on January 1, 2005. This Court must follow the established precedent, and as such, this Court cannot find that [Hunter] and [Carter] had a common law marriage as it was legally impossible for them to enter into a common law marriage before common law marriages were abolished in Pennsylvania.

Rule 1925(a) Opinion, 9/16/16, at 5 ("1925(a) Op."). Second, the trial court concluded that "[e]ven if the case law recognized same-sex common law marriages, [Hunter] did not establish that he and [Carter] had a common law marriage." Id. In particular, the court found that Hunter had only "established that he had a future intention of marrying" Carter "when it was legal in Pennsylvania, " rather than a present intent to establish a marital relationship. Id.

         Hunter filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court denied. On August 2, 2016, Hunter timely appealed to this Court, challenging both bases for the trial court's denial of his petition.[3]

         Our standard of review in a declaratory judgment action is

limited to determining whether the trial court clearly abused its discretion or committed an error of law. If the trial court's determination is supported by the record, we may not substitute our own judgment for that of the trial court. The application of the law, however, is always subject to our review.

Vignola v. Vignola, 39 A.3d 390, 393 (Pa.Super. 2012) (quoting Bianchi v. Bianchi, 859 A.2d 511, 515 (Pa.Super. 2004)). With this standard in mind, we review the merits of Hunter's appeal.

         The Right of Same-Sex Couples to Common Law Marriage

         First, Hunter asserts that the trial court erred in concluding that it was "legally impossible" for him and Carter to enter into a pre-2005 common law marriage because, at that time, the Pennsylvania Marriage Law defined marriage as a union "between one man and one woman." 23 Pa.C.S. § 1102; see id. § 1704. Hunter contends that because these provisions so defining marriage have been declared unconstitutional, they cannot preclude the recognition of his pre-2005 common law marriage to Carter. We agree.

          Historically, Pennsylvania defined marriage as "a civil contract made between parties with the capacity to so contract." In re Estate of Garges, 378 A.2d 307, 308 (Pa. 1977). Pennsylvania has recognized two types of marriage: ceremonial and common law. In re Estate of Manfredi, 159 A.2d 697, 700 (Pa. 1960). "A ceremonial marriage is a wedding or marriage performed by a religious or civil authority with the usual or customary ceremony or formalities." Id. "[A] common law marriage is a marriage by the express agreement of the parties without ceremony, and almost invariably without a witness, by words - not in futuro or in postea, but - in praesenti, uttered with a view and for the purpose of establishing the relationship of husband and wife." Id. (italics in original).

         As noted above, the Pennsylvania legislature abolished the doctrine of common law marriage effective January 1, 2005. See 23 Pa.C.S. § 1103. However, section 1103 of the Marriage Law permits the legal recognition of common law marriages contracted before January 1, 2005. See id.

         The proper procedure for obtaining legal recognition of a common law marriage is the filing of a declaratory judgment action. See Vignola, 39 A.3d at 392-93. Section 3306 of the Domestic Relations Code provides:

When the validity of a marriage is denied or doubted, either or both of the parties to the marriage may bring an action for a declaratory judgment seeking a declaration of the validity or invalidity of the marriage and, upon proof of the validity or invalidity of the marriage, the marriage shall be declared valid or invalid by decree of the court and, unless reversed upon appeal, the declaration shall be conclusive upon all persons concerned.

23 Pa.C.S. § 3306. This procedure is necessarily retrospective and often difficult, given the absence of a formal ceremony marking the occasion of the marriage. See Garges, 378 A.2d at 309 ("Proving the existence of a marriage contract, except where it is entered into ceremonially, is difficult, because it is ...

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