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What is common-law marriage?

On Behalf of | May 17, 2022 | Family Law |

Pennsylvania recognizes a nonceremonial marriage where couples live together and present themselves as spouses to their families, friends, and community even though they do not possess a marriage license. Couples are engaged in these common-law marriages if they meet specific legal requirements.


Pennsylvania’s divorce and family law sets strict standards for a common-law marriage. Only common-law marriages that occurred in Pennsylvania before Jan. 1, 2005, are legally recognized. Any later common marriages are invalid. Valid common law marriages entered into in other states are also recognized.


Common law marriages entered before Jan. 1, 2005, had to meet these requirements for legal recognition:

  • Spouses exchanged words of present intent to marry.
  • Their decision to marry was consensual.
  • The spouses presented themselves as spouses in public.
  • The parties had the legal capacity to marry.

In 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior Court retroactively recognized same-sex common-law marriages entered before Jan. 1, 2005. Pennsylvania courts could not rely on provisions of Pennsylvania’s family law invalidated when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriages.

There are no cohabitation or residency requirements. Couples, however, may use consistent cohabitation to strengthen their claim of a common-law marriage.

Proving common-law marriage

Parties may have to prove a common-law marriage to obtain an inheritance, divorce from a common-law marriage or other benefitsThey should present evidence that both spouses had the capacity to enter into the marriage and exchanged vows stating intent and their consent to marry. Couples may show:

  • That they were 18 when they married.
  • That they were not married to someone else when they married.
  • Obtain testimony from friends, family, or community members that they referred to themselves as spouses.

Establishing a marriage after a spouse died may be more difficult. A court may presume there was a common-law marriage if the surviving spouse presents this evidence:

  • They lived together consistently.
  • Proof of jointly owned property, leases, or rental agreements.
  • Joint credit applications, tax returns and bank accounts.
  • Birth certificate naming both spouses as parent of a child.
  • Testimony from friends, family, or community members that the couple referred to themselves and were considered spouses.

This presumption is denied, however, if there is no evidence that the couple did not expressly agree to live as spouses.


 A divorce is legally required to dissolve a Pennsylvania common-law marriage. The party seeking a divorce bears the burden of proof.


Common law marriages have advantages including:

  • Marriage stays valid and binding until divorce.
  • Right to inheritance with valid will and proof.
  • Eligibility for spouse’s pension, insurance, and Social Security benefits.
  • Gift tax exemption.
  • Spousal support and child custody rights.
  • Mortgage interest deduction.
  • Marital exemption for estate.
  • Hospital visitation rights.


 These marriages may have disadvantages:

  • More burdensome to prove valid marriage, especially without legal documents.
  • Common-law marriage divorces require more time and costs.
  • Claiming an inheritance is more complicated, especially without a will.
  • Person seeking benefit or relief bears burden of proving common-law marriage.

Attorneys can assist spouses with family issues. They can help assure that their rights are protected, and they can seek their legally entitled rights.