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Common law marriage and property division

Not all states recognize common law marriage, and many that once accepted the practice will now only recognize those unions that began many years ago. For Pennsylvania couples who choose to live together in a committed relationship outside of marriage, a number of legal issues can arise when that relationship ends. An example is found in a recent case in which a man and woman struggled over matters of property division and alimony based on a common law marriage.

The couple began dating in 1994, when the man was still legally married to another woman. They had a child together, and even though the man proposed marriage several times, the woman expressed no interest in changing the legal status of their relationship. When the relationship ended in 2016, the woman filed for divorce.

When the matter came before a court of law, the man pointed out that the couple was not legally married. At one point, he had listed the woman as his wife on paperwork to receive health insurance and again to withdraw a portion of his retirement savings. However, the couple never had a commitment ceremony or cemented their relationship in writing.

The court found that the relationship did not meet the requirements of marriage. Furthermore, because the couple never exchanged any type of vows in a public setting, the relationship was also deemed to not meet the standards of a common law marriage. That leaves the woman with little recourse in regard to spousal support, although she could pursue property division through a different legal action. For Pennsylvania couples in long-term unmarried relationships, the case serves as a cautionary tale about protecting the financial rights of each party.

Source:, "'She's not my wife,' man says, and Pa. court agrees", Matt Miller, Nov. 8, 2017

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