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A common-law marriage isn't what it used to be in Pennsylvania

Do you think that you're protected in the event of your spouse's death through a common-law marriage in Pennsylvania? If so, think again.

A Pennsylvania widow is now just the girlfriend of the deceased, at least as far as the law is concerned. The Superior Court, which hears appeals on cases that have already been decided once at a lower level, found that the woman couldn't back up her claim to a share of the estate left by the man she claimed was her common-law husband for 13 years. There wasn't any proof that they both believed themselves in a valid marriage and cohabitation alone doesn't grant her inheritance rights over his natural children, who took her to court.

While it's true that Pennsylvania law does recognize common-law marriages that were contracted on or before Jan. 1, 2005, a common-law marriage can be difficult to prove in court even if there's no one to challenge you.

Typically, the court wants proof that both members of the couple considered themselves married and held themselves out to their local community as a married couple, despite the lack of legal paperwork. Many couples who think they are in a common-law relationship rely on old information about the validity of common-law marriages in the state or don't fully understand what it takes to have established a common-law marriage in the first place.

Whether the oversight was intentional or not, a little planning and some paperwork from an attorney could have prevented the heartbreak the woman is experiencing on top of the loss of her partner. Additionally, by not establishing a legal marriage, she also loses any opportunity to collect benefits as his widow through Social Security -- an issue that could be important if she's not worked regularly, had low-income jobs or becomes disabled. Also, as his girlfriend and not his wife, she loses the right to decide how to dispose of his remains, which could be emotionally devastating.

If her partner didn't really want to get legally married, for whatever reason, there were still steps he could have taken that would have secured her ability to inherit a portion of his estate. Things like an updated will, medical and financial powers of attorney and a domestic partnership agreement could have at least protected her inheritance and the right to dispose of his remains as she saw fit.

Source: PennLive, "Woman who isn't named in lover's will can't get a penny from his estate, Pa. court says," Matt Miller, Nov. 17, 2016

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