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Pennsylvania must recognize common law same-sex unions

The last few decades haven't been easy, legally, for same-sex couples. Until the Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions throughout the nation, people in same-sex relationships often had to navigate a maze of laws that could vary greatly depending on where they were standing at any given point -- making their relationship of uncertain legal standing.

Now, even though same-sex marriages are legal throughout the country, there are still some leftover legal struggles that same-sex partners are facing because of the period of time when the laws everywhere were convoluted, contradictory or constantly changing.

Pennsylvania, however, has cleared up at least one area of potential confusion: any same-sex union that was entered into before 2005 that meets the definition of a marriage under the common law must be legally recognized as a valid marriage for the purposes of the disposition of an estate.

While the decision rose from just one particular dispute, the ruling has the potential to impact many same-sex couples where one of the partners dies before having the chance to legalize their marriage. It gives widow/widower status to the surviving partner and entitles them to a fair share of the deceased's estate. It also has the potential to allow the surviving spouse to collect benefits that are only eligible to those who had legal marriages.

These are the basics requirements regarding a marriage under the common law:

1. The couple resided together at the time period required by law (in this case, prior to 2005)

2. They held themselves out to the community as if they were married.

3. There must be sufficient evidence that the couple did consider themselves married:

  • They adopted one last name or hyphenated their names
  • They wore wedding bands
  • They shared finances
  • They publicly talked about the other spouse using the terms "husband" or "wife"
  • They opened joint accounts or held joint debt

4. It isn't necessary to meet all of these requirements, however, the overall weight of the evidence must show that the couple met the definition of a common-law couple.

In many cases, the best evidence may be sworn statements from friends or relatives that indicate that the couple considered themselves married in spite of laws that prevented them from being legally wed.

An attorney can help you learn more about how this ruling could affect your status as an heir.

Source: Pennlive.com, "Common-law marriages of same-sex couples must be recognized, Pa. court rules," Matt Miller, Sep. 18, 2017

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