• No More Common Law Marriage in PA
  • January 27, 2004 | Author: Sue Brahm Gunn
  • Law Firm: Fox Rothschild LLP - Pittsburgh Office
  • In a surprising decision announced September 17, 2003, Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court ruled that "henceforth, this court will recognize as valid only those Pennsylvania marriages entered into pursuant to the Marriage Law procedures."

    The ruling in PNC Bank Corporation v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Stamos) pertained to the appeal of a workers' compensation decision granting benefits to a deceased employee's common law spouse. PNC Bank sought to abolish common law marriage in Pennsylvania. Although the bank prevailed on that issue, the Court upheld the benefits award to the common law spouse, giving prospective application to its decision no longer to recognize common law marriage. Because PNC Bank did not appeal the decision, common law marriage no longer will be recognized unless or until Pennsylvania's Supreme Court or General Assembly overrules this decision.

    Chronic Dilemma
    Common law marriage long has posed problems for employers, insurance companies and ERISA plan administrators who must determine whether a purported spouse is legitimate or a fraud. Consequently, employers currently extending health/medical benefits coverage to a common law spouse may want to consider reviewing the elements of that common law marriage to be certain that coverage has been properly extended. If an employer determines that a valid common law marriage did not exist as of September 17, 2003, it may want to terminate the spouse's "common law" coverage. Of course, terminating benefits raises other questions not yet answered, such as whether COBRA benefits should or must be offered, or whether an employer may terminate that coverage.

    Risk to Employers
    An employer who recognizes that an employee cannot satisfy the common law marriage requirements as of September 17, 2003 faces risk by not terminating existing dependent coverage. In light of state and local laws prohibiting discrimination based on an employee's sexual orientation, familial or marital status, an employer who continues coverage for an employee's heterosexual partner without the benefit of either common law or statutory marriage may render that employer vulnerable to allegations of discrimination from other employees whose same-sex or unmarried partners are not offered dependent coverage. Employers who limit dependent benefits to legal spouses should consider adding a requirement, such as providing a copy of the employee's marriage license, before extending dependent health care coverage to an employee's spouse.

    All Bases Covered
    Beneficiary designations on pension and life insurance plans also should be reviewed. Although administrators of ERISA plans likely do not have the duty to review application documents to be certain that the change in the law does not jeopardize employees' selections of beneficiaries, a review could serve to avoid future legal disputes and provide proper guidance to insure that employees' objectives are met.

    Overall, every employee's dependent and beneficiary designations should be reviewed to insure that specific individuals are named as beneficiaries rather than identified by designations such as "spouse," and that an employee who previously identified his or her common law spouse as a dependent can prove the existence of a common law marriage as of September 17, 2003.