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Common-law spouses must follow divorce laws

It’s been nearly 15 years since the state of Pennsylvania recognized new common-law marriages. Before January 1, 2005, couples that cohabited and exchanged words that showed intent to marry had legal marriage rights as a common-law marriage. There was no minimum number of years to have lived together. Both parties simply had to agree they were husband and wife.

What happens if the common-law couple chooses to go their separate ways? Can the two move their belongings to separate residences? Not so fast.

A common-law myth

Just because a couple didn’t wed in a chapel or courthouse doesn’t mean it is simple to relinquish marriage rights once they agree to separate. Being able to enjoy the legal benefits means also having to manage the drawbacks, including, having to undergo the same traditional divorce procedures as couples who were married ceremonially.

Proving marriage isnt always easy

Divorce is seldom easy, but unlike couples with more traditional marriages, common-law couples often face the additional challenge of proving the validity of their marriage. Several spouses, usually the more financially disadvantaged, have learned this lesson the hard way. If they cannot prove they were in a valid common-law marriage, then they lose their rights to property division and alimony. A person dependent on their spouse may find it difficult to make ends meet in a situation like this.

A Pennsylvania court denied a woman her divorce claim and alimony after her husband denied the marriage. Because she had no marriage certificate or other evidence of marriage, she was unable to receive the support she needed.

Another woman in a common-law couple attempted to divorce, but her husband denied the marriage. The wife was able to provide cards and messages referring to them as a married couple. The husband refuted this evidence by saying they were engaged but never married and the ring he wore on the ring finger of his left hand was not a wedding band. The two reportedly maintained separate bank accounts and filed their taxes individually. Yet, the court still ruled in the woman’s favor

Think of everything as evidence

Pennsylvania law required only an oral contract to form a valid common-law marriage before 2005. That makes entering the union easy but potentially difficult to prove down the road. The woman in the second example received a favorable ruling because she held onto sentimental objects like cards and letters. It’s sad to say that these cherished mementos sometimes make the best evidence of an existing marriage.

Saving sentimental gifts like these is something many couples do and that’s a good thing for those in common-law marriages. Hopefully these treasures never become court room evidence but they are worth hanging on to for more than just sentimental reasons.

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