PR 05605.025 Michigan
A. PR 04-091 Michigan - Recognition of Common Law Marriage Based on Sojourn to Pennsylvania
DATE: March 5, 2004
The issue raised in this case is whether a Michigan court would recognize that a valid common-law marriage was created in Pennsylvania based on sojourns to Pennsylvania by the NH and the disabled widow claimant. If the NH and the claimant began living together before the NH's divorce from his prior wife, there must be clear and convincing evidence that the couple took some affirmative action to enter into a new agreement to be married during one of their visits to Pennsylvania. If the NH's marriage to his prior spouse ended before he began living with the claimant, it must be established that, during any sojourn to Pennsylvania, the couple exchanged words in the present tense spoken with the specific purpose that the legal relationship be created, as required under Pennsylvania law. There must also be sufficient evidence to raise a rebuttable presumption that a common-law marriage existed based on constant cohabitation and a broad and general reputation as husband and wife.
You asked whether a Michigan court would recognize that a valid common law marriage was created in Pennsylvania based on sojourns to Pennsylvania by the wage earner, Kenneth G~ (Mr. G~), and the applicant for disabled widow's insurance benefits (DWIB), Shirley G~ (Ms. G~). We conclude that the information submitted to us is insufficient to support the conclusion that the couple entered into a valid common law marriage in Pennsylvania. We suggest, however, that further development might be undertaken on the issues of whether Mr. G~'s marriage to Kathy G~ ended prior to the time he began living with Shirley G~ and whether the Mr. G~ and Shirley G~ had the general reputation as husband and wife.
Mr. G~ and Ms. G~ were ceremonially married in Michigan on September 12, 1992. The materials you supplied to our office include a copy of the marriage certificate, which shows the groom's name as Kenneth W. G~ and the bride's name as Shirley M. H~. Mr. G~ died on December 7, 1992, less than nine months after the date of his ceremonial marriage to Ms. G~. He was domiciled in Michigan at the time of his death. Ms. G~ filed a DWIB application on January 26, 2004. (It appears from a report of contact, dated January 23, 2004, that a previous DWIB application was denied in 1997, that Ms. G~ did not request reconsideration at that time, and that she now wishes to have the prior determination reopened for good cause.)
On her January 26, 2004 DWIB application, Ms. G~ listed three previous ceremonial marriages for herself, the last to Sam H~, ending in divorce on January 1, 1977. Ms. G~ reported that Mr. G~ had previously been married to Kathy G~ on January 1, 1970 and that the marriage had ended in divorce on January 1, 1980. In the remarks section of her application, Ms. G~ stated:
Mr. Kenneth G~ and I began to live as husband and wife from about 1984. Our primary home was always Michigan. We lived together and considered ourselves married from 1984 until his death in 1992. Between 1984 and 1992 we travled (sic) to Pennsylvania about 3 times. We spent between 3-7 days during the trips to Pennsylvania. While we were there we presented ourselves as husband and wife and all family members assumed we were married.
An SSA-754-F4, Statement Regarding Marriage, submitted by Ms. G~ on January 26, 2004, indicates that the couple began living together some time in 1984 in Ypsilanti, Michigan and lived together continuous from that time until 1992. Ms. G~ states that, when they began living together, she became known as Shirley G~ and they recognized each other as husband and wife and understood that they would live together for the rest of their lives. Ms. G~ checked the box indicating that she believed living together made them legally married and wrote, "We believed we were husband & wife." Although she indicated that there was an agreement to have a ceremonial marriage in the future, she wrote, "A piece of paper didn't seem to matter - we were already husband & wife but the ceremony was perform (sic)." Ms. G~ reported that, after they started living together, there were no tax returns filed, deeds or contracts executed, insurance policies taken out, or bank accounts opened, although it appears that the couple had a carpet laying business. Ms. G~ reported that she introduced Mr. G~ as her husband and he introduced her as his wife and that their mail was addressed to "Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth G~."
A report of contact on January 23, 2004 indicates that there are no known relatives of Mr. G~ who can supply an SSA-753, Statement Regarding Marriage. The materials you provided to our office, however, include the following statements from relatives of Ms. G~:
A statement from Ms. G~'s uncle, Clark F~, indicating that the couple visited his home in Uniontown, Pennsylvania for three days in August 1988. Mr. F~ also completed an SSA-753, Statement Regarding Marriage, stating that he had known Mr. G~ since 1987 and that the couple had visited him and his wife for family reunions and at other times. Mr. F~ reported that he considered the couple to be husband and wife because Mr. G~ had been introduced to him as Shirley's husband and "it was a well known fact." He reported that they referred to each other as husband and wife during visits at his home, at the G~s' home, and at family reunions and that, to his knowledge they had lived together in Michigan continuously from 1984 to 1992 and were generally known as husband and wife.
A statement from Dana F~ G~, of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, indicates that the couple visited her in August 1986 to lay carpet in her home.
A statement from Ms. G~'s aunt, Ferne A. C~, of Republic, Pennsylvania, indicates that she first met Mr. G~ at a family reunion in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1987, at which Ms. G~ introduced him as her husband. The statement also indicates that Ms. C~ "had received" Christmas cards signed "Kenny and Shirley M. G~." Ms. C~ also completed an SSA-753, Statement Regarding Marriage, on which she reported that she had met Mr. G~ several times at family gatherings both in Pennsylvania and Michigan during the period 1987 until Mr. G~'s death in 1992 and that she believed the couple was generally known as husband and wife and had lived together continuously from 1984 until Mr. G~'s death.
An SSA-753, Statement Regarding Marriage, completed by Ms. G~'s uncle, William D. F~, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, indicates that he had known Mr. G~ for about ten years before Mr. G~'s death and that he visited with the couple often at the couple's home and at family reunions in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Mr. F~ reported that he considered the couple to be husband and wife because they "lived together as husband and wife and shared their responsibilities." He stated that the couple maintained a home in Ypsilanti, lived together continuously from 1984 until Mr. G~'s death, and were generally known as husband and wife.
You also provided our office with copies of what appear to be letters and cards that the couple exchanged during the course of their relationship:
What appears to be a handmade Sweetest Day card, dated October 15, 1988 to "Shirley" from "Ken" states, in part, "I will allways (sic) have you and will do my best to make you happy. . . . You can depend on me every day of the year." The card does not refer to Shirley as his wife or to himself as her husband.
A letter dated June 4, 198 9, is addressed to "My Love" and is signed "Shirley." The letter states, in part, "we have been together 6 years . . . . my Lover, my Friend & my husband you mean the world to me and there will never be anyone else for me . . . I will always be by your side untill (sic) the day I die."
A handmade birthday card, dated January 20, 1990, from "Kenny," states, in part, "through these coming years, I will allways (sic) love you." The card does not refer to Shirley as his wife or to him as her husband.
A three-page letter to Shirley is captioned, "To my Loving Wife on our Anniversary - May 28 th, 1990 - From Her Loving Husband - Kenny." The letter, which is signed "Your Husband Kenny" states that, on May 28, seven years earlier he found the person with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life and that she would never have to worry about his leaving her.
A handmade card, dated 1990, has "To my wife on Easter, I Love You" on the cover. The inside of the card conveys Easter wishes "to my wonderful wife," professes love for her that will never die, and is signed, "Love you forever, Kenny."
A letter, dated 1990, with no salutation or signature, states, in part, "We have been together since we met in June. And it has been just six short years. . . . And I know that we will last. Because I do love you."
A handmade birthday card, dated 1991, to "Shirley" from "Kenny" refers to her as "Honey" but does not contain any reference to their marital status.
The materials you provided also include several SSA screen printouts bearing Mr. G~'s name. One shows a marriage to Catherine A~ on December 15, 1970 that ended in divorce on October 24, 1983. The printout indicates that proof of the divorce was not secured. The question about whether there were other marriages is answered in the negative, but the date of Shirley G~'s ceremonial marriage to the wage earner, September 12, 1992, is listed following "date of marriage." We are unsure of the source of this information. Another printout lists Shirley M~ as Mr. G~'s spouse, with September 12, 1992 as the marriage date. Yet another printout lists Kathy G~ as spouse with a marriage date of January 1, 1970 and the marriage ending in divorce on January 1, 1980, with no proof secured. We presume that this particular printout reflects the information supplied by Shirley G~ on her 2004 DWIB application.
To be entitled to DWIB, a claimant must be the deceased insured wage earner's "widow" and the marriage must meet a nine-month duration requirement. We look to the law of the State in which the wage earner was domiciled at death, Michigan in this case, to determine whether a claimant is the wage earner's "widow" for DWIB purposes. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. A claimant is considered the wage earner's widow if she and the wage earner were validly married under State law at the time of the wage earner's death or if, under the law of the applicable State, the claimant could inherit the wage earner's intestate personal property as a spouse. 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Ms. G~ meets the definition of widow because she and Mr. G~ were ceremonially married on September 12, 1992 and there is no evidence in the materials supplied to us to indicate that the marriage was invalid or had terminated.
Mr. G~ died, however, less than nine months after his marriage to Ms. G~ occurred on September 12, 1992. To be entitled to DWIB, the marriage must have lasted for at least nine months immediately preceding the wage earner's death. 20 C.F.R. § 404.335. There are several exceptions to the nine-month duration requirement, none of which appear to apply in Ms. G~'s case. See 20 C.F.R. 404.335(a). Therefore, we look to Ms. G~'s allegation that she and Mr. G~ had previously entered into a common law marriage. If the couple entered into a valid common law marriage that would be recognized by the State of Michigan and that continued until Mr. G~'s death, that marriage will fulfill the relationship and duration requirements for DWIB. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335, 404.345. If the couple entered into a valid common law marriage that would be recognized by the State of Michigan, and that marriage lasted at least nine months but terminated at some later time, the combination of that common law marriage and the G~s' later ceremonial marriage would also meet the relationship and duration requirements for DWIB entitlement, provided that, at the time of the ceremonial marriage on September 12, 1992, Mr. G~ was expected to live for nine months. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(2)(iii).
As of January 1, 1957, couples wishing to enter into a marriage in Michigan must not only be capable of consenting to the contract of marriage, they must also obtain a license and be ceremonially married in accordance with Michigan statutes. Michigan Compiled Laws Annotated (MCLA) § 551.2. Thus, effective January 1, 1957, couples are prohibited from entering into a common law marriage in Michigan. Id. See also, People v. Schmidt, 579 N.W.2d 431, 434 (Mich. App. 1998); In re Estate of Burroughs, 486 N.W.2d 113, 114 (Mich. App. 1992) (citing In re Estate of Brack, 329 N.W.2d 432 (Mich. App. 1983)). Michigan courts will, however, recognize common law marriages that were entered into before that date. In addition, Michigan follows the general rule that a marriage that is valid where it was contracted is valid everywhere. People v. Schmidt, 579 N.W. 2d at 434. Thus, the Michigan courts will recognize a common law marriage entered into January 1, 1957 or later in another State, so long as the common law marriage would be a valid marriage in the State where the marriage took place. In re Estate of Burroughs, 486 N.W.2d at 114-15. In determining whether the marriage would be valid in the State where it was contracted, the Michigan courts look to the law of the State where the marriage was contracted to determine the legal requirements for a common law marriage and the sufficiency of the evidence. See People v. Schmidt, 579 N.W.2d at 434 (applying Alabama law where couple moved to Alabama with the intent to marry, lived together as husband and wife, and held themselves out to the public as married); In re Estate of Burroughs, 486 N.W.2d at 114-15 (finding that a man's monthly visits to the woman's temporary residence in Texas were insufficient to meet the Texas requirement that the couple live together as husband and wife in Texas); In re Estate of Brack, 329 N.W.2d at 434 (finding that alleged common law marriage during trip to Georgia was not valid where the couples did not meet Georgia's cohabitation requirement). Therefore, if the G~s entered into a common law marriage in Pennsylvania during one of their visits, and the marriage would be considered valid under Pennsylvania law, the courts of Michigan would recognize the marriage as valid and determine that Ms. G~ was Mr. G~'s widow.
We were unable to locate any Michigan cases in which the issue was whether a valid common law marriage had arisen in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania courts recognize common law marriages, at least those entered into prior to September 17, 2003._11 The courts examine a purported common law marriage contract with "great scrutiny," as common law marriage is tolerated but not encouraged. In re Estate of Gavula, 417 A.2d 168, 171 (Pa. 1980); Staudenmayer v. Staudenmayer, 714 A. 2d 1016, 1019-20 (Pa. 1998). Whether a valid marriage exists is a mixed question of law and fact. In re Estate of Cummings, 479 A.2d 537, 541 (Pa. Super. 1984). In Pennsylvania, "a common law marriage can only be created by an exchange of words in the present tense, spoken with the specific purpose that the legal relationship of husband and wife is created by that." Staudenmayer, 714 A. 2d at 1020. No specific words are required, but there must be "proof of an agreement to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time," i.e., proof of a verba di praesenti exchange. Id. (citing In re Estate of Gavula, 417 A.2d 168, 171 (Pa. 1980)). The proof must be clear and convincing. See Staudenmayer, 714 A. 2d at 1022 (upholding trial court's finding that alleged wife failed to prove clearly and convincingly that a common law marriage existed where alleged husband denied existence of a common law marriage and alleged wife was unable to recall the specific instance of when they said to each other that they were husband and wife or explain why they subsequently married ceremonially). Pennsylvania cases also recognize a rebuttable presumption that a common law marriage exists where the party claiming the existence of a common law relationship proves "(1) constant cohabitation; and, (2) a reputation of marriage 'which is not partial or divided but is broad and general'." Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d at 1020-21 (quoting In re Estate of Manfredi, 159 A.2d 697, 700 (Pa. 1960)).
Where the parties lived together unmarried up to the time of the alleged agreement to create a marriage relationship, however, the presumption of a common law relationship by cohabitation and reputation does not arise. A different presumption arises in such a situation, i.e., a relationship that is meretricious (characterized by living together as unmarried) at the start is presumed to continue as a meretricious relationship during the cohabitation of the parties. In re Estate of Cummings, 479 A.2d at 542. The presumption of a continued meretricious relationship can be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence of the consent of both parties to enter into a valid marriage. Id. For example, where the cohabitation of the parties began while one of the parties was incompetent to marry because he/she was still married to someone else, it is presumed that the parties continued to live together as unmarried persons, even after the impediment to the marriage was removed._22 Only clear and convincing evidence of a change in status can rebut this presumption. In re Estate of Garges, 378 A.2d 307, 309 (Pa. 1977). The new agreement demonstrating a change in status cannot be merely an admission that the prior relationship, entered into while one party was married to someone else, still exists. There must be a new agreement to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time - a new verba di praesenti. In re Estate of Garges, 378 A.2d at 309, n. 7. In In re Estate of Garges, the court found sufficient evidence of a change of status where the husband showed the wife a copy of his divorce decree and stated, "Now we're legally married," the wife replied "It's about time," the wife began using the husband's name as her last name, and the husband named the wife as a spouse/beneficiary on a life insurance policy. 378 A.2d at 308-10. See also In re Estate of Gower, 284 A.2d 742, 743-44 (Pa. 1971) (finding that presumption of continued meretricious relationship was rebutted where, subsequent to removal of the legal impediment, the husband, for purposes of exemption from military service, signed a statement, to which the wife also subscribed, declaring that he considered her to be his wife and stating that he was assuming the responsibilities of a husband and according her the rights and privileges of a wife).
The materials you sent to us are inconsistent regarding the date of Mr. G~'s divorce from Kathy G~. Shirley G~ reported that the divorce occurred in 1981. There is an SSA screen printout, however, that indicates Mr. G~'s divorce from Kathy G~ did not occur until October 24, 1983. This discrepancy is significant, since Shirley G~ alleges that she and Mr. G~ considered themselves to be married from the time they began living together. Although Shirley G~'s statements, and the statements of her relatives, indicate that the couple began living together as husband and wife sometime in 1984, a letter from Mr. G~, dated May 28, 1990, states that it is their seventh anniversary, which would mean that the relationship probably began in May of 1983. Another letter from Mr. G~, dated 1990, states that it has been six years since they met, which would mean the relationship began in 1984. A letter from Shirley G~, dated June 4, 1989, states that they have been together six years, which would mean that their relationship began in June 1983. We recommend further development on the issue of when Mr. G~ and Shirley G~ began living together. If you determine that they began living together prior to Mr. G~'s divorce, the rebuttable presumption that a meretricious relationship continued after the divorce applies and, absent clear and convincing evidence that the couple took some affirmative action to enter into a new agreement to be married during one of their trips to Pennsylvania, i.e., that there was a verba di praesenti exchange during one of the trips, no common law marriage can be found and Ms. G~ cannot be entitled to DWIB on Mr. G~'s account. We see no evidence of such a new agreement in the materials you provided.
If you determine that Mr. G~ was already divorced from Kathy G~ when he and Shirley G~ began living as husband and wife, or if you determine that Mr. G~ and Kathy G~ were still married at the time but there is clear and convincing evidence that Mr. G~ and Shirley G~ entered into a new agreement that they were married after Mr. G~'s marriage to Kathy G~ ended, then we must determine whether a valid common law marriage arose during one of the couple's visits to Pennsylvania.
As stated above, a common law marriage will be established in Pennsylvania where there is a verba di praesenti exchange -- an exchange of words in the present tense, spoken with the specific purpose that the legal relationship of husband and wife be created by those words. Staudenmayer, 714 A. 2d at 1020. There must be clear and convincing proof of an agreement to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time. Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d at 1020, 1022. Ms. C~'s statement indicates that Ms. G~ introduced Mr. G~ as her husband during a visit to Pennsylvania in the summer of 1987, but there is no indication that there was an exchange between them that demonstrated an intent to enter into a marriage at that time. The statements from Ms. G~'s two uncles and Ms. G~ also give no indication of such an exchange during that trip or the other two trips in 1986 and 1988. Absent from Ms. G~'s statements is any mention that, during any of the trips to Pennsylvania, the couple exchanged any words to the effect that they were entering into a marriage and becoming husband and wife. Her statement that, during their trips to Pennsylvania, they presented themselves as husband and wife, while showing a mutuality not present in the other statements, still does not indicate that, on any one of those occasions, the couple entered into the necessary verba di praesenti exchange. This is particularly true in light of Ms. G~'s statement that the relatives in Pennsylvania "assumed" they were married. The fact that, on May 28, 199 0, Mr. G~ wrote a letter indicating it was the couple's seventh anniversary also supports the conclusion that the necessary verba di praesenti exchange did not occur during any of the trips to Pennsylvania.
There is case law indicating that, at least in some instances, evidence of cohabitation and general reputation is insufficient to establish a common law marriage in the absence of a verba di praesenti exchange. In Staudenmayer, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that constant cohabitation and general reputation as husband and wife did not raise a rebuttable presumption of common law marriage where both parties were alive and able to testify about the circumstances of the formation of the marriage contract. 714 A.2d at 1021. See also Commonwealth of Pa. v. Sullivan, 398 A.2d 978, 980 (Pa. 1979) (where issue was whether a woman could testify against her alleged common law husband, court found that the evidence established only a contract to enter into a marriage at some time in the future and stated, "Cohabitation and reputation cannot establish a marriage if the requisite contract was not entered into"). It is less clear whether the rebuttable presumption based on cohabitation and reputation can be raised where only one of the parties to the alleged marriage is available to testify about the formation of the marriage contract, or where there is no evidence of an verba di praesenti exchange. See In re Nikitka's Estate, 29 A.2d 521, 522 (Pa. 1943) (the rule permitting a finding of marriage based upon reputation and cohabitation alone is one of necessity "to be applied only in cases where other proof is not available," but not when the alleged widow is available to testify to the precise form of the alleged marriage contract). But see In re Estate of Gavula, 417 A.2d 168, 171-73 (Pa. 1980) (finding evidence refuted purported widow's allegation of verba di praesenti exchange, but also acknowledging presumption and noting that there was no evidence of constant cohabitation and general reputation to raise the presumption); Van Brakle v. Lanauze, 438 A.2d 992, 994 (Pa. Super. 1981) (finding that the appellee had failed to establish his ex-wife's subsequent common law marriage, either by evidence of verba di praesenti or by raising a presumption through evidence of cohabitation and reputation). Having located no subsequent Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases that contradict the approach used in In re Estate of Gavula, 417 A.2d at 171-73, we conclude that, unless both alleged spouses are available to testify about the formation of the marriage contract, an individual may rely on the rebuttable presumption established through evidence of constant cohabitation and general reputation. The federal cases in which the courts have sought to interpret Pennsylvania law on this subject bolster our conclusion. See Turner v. Barnhart, 245 F.Supp.2d 681, 683 (E.D. Pa. 2003) (interpreting Pennsylvania law to allow invocation of the rebuttable presumption where there is no evidence of a verba di praesenti exchange); Charmack v. Office of Personnel Management, No. 01-3278, 28 Fed. Appx. 927, 2001 WL 1398632 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 9, 2001 (unpublished case) (interpreting Pennsylvania law to allow common-law marriage to be established by rebuttable presumption where alleged husband admitted that, during the couple's one-month stay in Pennsylvania, there was no exchange of words in the present tense for the purpose of establishing the relationship of husband and wife); Renshaw v. Heckler, 787 F.2d 50, 52 (2d Cir. 1986) (interpreting Pennsylvania law as permitting a finding of marriage based on reputation and cohabitation where no utterance of words constituting a verba di praesenti exchange was proved); Cherry v. Secretary of HHS, No. Civ. 88-1226A, 1990 WL 357197 (NDNY) (April 17, 1990) (interpreting Pennsylvania law, court stated, "Proof of such agreement [to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time] can be established directly, or circumstantially, by proof of cohabitation and reputation"), citing In re Estate of Cummings, 479 A.2d at 542.
The question remains, however, whether the information which you provided to our office regarding cohabitation and reputation is sufficient to raise the rebuttable presumption that a common law marriage exists. We conclude that there is not sufficient reputation evidence to raise the presumption. To raise the rebuttable presumption that a common law marriage exists, the party claiming the existence of a common law relationship must prove "(1) constant cohabitation; and, (2) a reputation of marriage 'which is not partial or divided but is broad and general'." Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d at 1020-21 (quoting In re Estate of Manfredi, 159 A.2d at 700). The couple's cohabitation must be "constant, as distinguished from an irregular or inconsistent cohabitation." Van Brakle v. Lanauze, 438 A.2d at 994 (quoting Estate of Manfredi, 159 A.2d at 700). The statements and other evidence you provided appear to establish that Ms. G~ and Mr. G~ cohabited continuously, both while in Pennsylvania and in Michigan, until Mr. G~'s death. None of the materials you provided give any contrary indication. Based on the statements you provided, we conclude that the requirement of "constant" cohabitation, is met.
We do not think, however, that the materials submitted to us establish that the reputation requirement is met. In In re Estate of Rees, 480 A.2d 327 (Pa. Super. 1984), the court found that the couple neither engaged in constant cohabitation (they cohabited during alleged husband's visits to alleged wife's home in Florida, where the alleged common law marriage arose, but they did not cohabit at other times) nor general reputation. With regard to the reputation requirement, the court found it insufficient that a few Florida neighbors and the couple's son testified that the couple was known as husband and wife. The court stated, "The mere fact that they [the alleged contracting parties] were known to a few people as man and wife is not sufficient evidence to establish marriage. Proof of reputation for such purpose must be general and not confined to a few persons in the immediate neighborhood, as the relationship may be established merely for the purpose of deceiving others." In re Estate of Rees, 480 A.2d at 329 (citations omitted). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has used the same language. See In re Estate of Manfredi, 159 A.2d at 700 (quoting In re Hilton's Estate, 106 A. 69 (Pa. 1919). See also In re Nikitka's Estate, 29 A.2d 521, 523 (Pa. 1943) (quoting same language in finding that, although there was ample evidence of constant cohabitation, evidence of reputation was insufficient where there was testimony from one close friend and one border that the couple was known as husband and wife). Although there are statements from a few of Ms. G~'s relatives indicating that they knew the couple as husband and wife and that they believed the couple was generally known as husband as wife, we conclude that these statements do not establish a reputation of marriage which is "not partial or divided but is broad and general," as required by the Pennsylvania courts. Thus, the presumption of a common law marriage based on cohabitation and reputation does not arise based on the current evidence alone.
Moreover, there is information in the file that casts doubt on whether the couple's reputation as husband and wife was "not partial or divided" but "broad and general." Staudenmayer, 714 A.2d at 1020-21 (quoting In re Estate of Manfredi, 159 A.2d at 700). For example, the fact that Ms. G~ and Mr. G~ later entered into a ceremonial marriage, although not dispositive, might indicate that they believed they were not legally married. See Staudenmayer, 714 A. 2d at 1022 (wife unable to explain why, if couple had entered into a common law marriage, they later went through a ceremonial marriage). Also, we think it possible that Ms. G~ misunderstood questions 13 and 14 on Form SSA-754-F4. It seems unlikely that she and Mr. G~ did not file any tax returns, execute any deeds, contracts, or insurance beneficiary forms, or maintain any bank accounts, either separately or jointly, during the course of their years together. This is particularly unlikely since it appears that the couple operated a carpet laying business during that time. Such factors are relevant to a determination as to whether there is sufficient evidence of reputation as husband and wife. In In re Estate of Corace, 527 A.2d 1058 (Pa. Super. 1987) , the court affirmed a trial court's finding that there was insufficient evidence to establish general reputation within the community as a married couple. 527 A.2d at 1061. The court noted that title to property, which was purchased after cohabitation began, was in the alleged husband's name only, the couple had not filed any joint tax returns, the alleged wife had not identified herself as the wife at the hospital, and one of the husband's relatives had signed documents in connection with the husband's hospitalization. In Cherry, a federal court, interpreting Pennsylvania law, found that a common law marriage was not established where, although Pennsylvania relatives treated the couple as husband and wife during their visits, other evidence showed that the alleged wife did not change her name on her employment records, there was no joint ownership of property, they filed no joint income tax returns and had no joint bank accounts, and the alleged wife provided separately for disposition of her property to her children. 1990 WL 35197 at *2.
While we recognize the difficulties of developing evidence of events dating back to 1992 and earlier, we suggest that additional development be undertaken to determine whether the couple was generally known in the Ypsilanti, Michigan area as husband and wife and whether they held themselves out as husband and wife in conducting legal and business matters. Although Ms. G~ has indicated that she does not know of any surviving relatives of Mr. G~, perhaps statements could be secured from neighbors, friends, landlords, business associates, and others in the community, such as local merchants, suppliers to the couple's carpet laying business, customers, or members of a religious or fraternal organization, etc. to which the couple may have belonged. Documents such as mortgages, property titles, loan documents, leases, insurance forms, and tax returns would be helpful in determining the degree to which the couple held themselves out as husband and wife. If Ms. G~'s prior DWIB application has been retained by the Agency, there might be helpful information on it. Did Ms. G~ file a name change for her social security number at any point after she began living with Mr. G~? Did she wear a wedding ring? Why did the couple enter into a subsequent ceremonial marriage and, if she was using the name G~ at the time, why does the marriage license show her last name as H~? Did she file an application with the Veterans Administration for any benefits based on Mr. G~'s military service, or did Mr. G~ file any documents with the Veterans Administration stating that he was married to Ms. G~?
If, after developing additional evidence, you conclude that there is insufficient evidence to show broad and general reputation as husband and wife, the rebuttable presumption of a common law marriage does not arise, and Ms. G~ will not be entitled to DWIB on Mr. G~'s account. If you conclude that there is evidence of broad and general reputation, you may presume that a common law marriage was entered into in Pennsylvania that would be recognized in Michigan, unless you find that there is also clear and convincing evidence that contradicts the conclusion that the couple considered themselves to be husband and wife.
We conclude that further development should be undertaken to determine whether Mr. G~'s marriage to Kathy G~ ended prior to the time he began living with Shirley G~. If you determine that Mr. G~ and Shirley G~ began living together before Mr. G~'s divorce, a common law marriage between Mr. G~ and Shirley G~ cannot be established absent clear and convincing evidence that the couple took some affirmative action to enter into a new agreement to be married during one of their visits to Pennsylvania.
Even if you determine that Mr. G~'s marriage to Kathy G~ ended before he began living with Shirley G~, the information submitted thus far is not sufficient to support the conclusion that Ms. G~ and the wage earner entered into a valid common law marriage in Pennsylvania that would be recognized by the Michigan courts. The information you provided does not establish that, during any sojourn to Pennsylvania, Ms. G~ and Mr. G~ exchanged words in the present tense spoken with the specific purpose that the legal relationship of husband and wife be created, as required under Pennsylvania law. Nor is there sufficient evidence to raise a rebuttable presumption that a common law marriage existed based on constant cohabitation and a broad and general reputation as husband and wife. If you determine that Mr. G~'s prior marriage terminated before he began living with Ms. G~, we suggest further development on the issue of whether the G~s had the general reputation as husband and wife.
_11Although a Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (an appellate level court) recently ruled that the doctrine of common law marriage was abolished, the court stated that the holding would have purely prospective effect, i.e., only attempted common law marriages entered into after September 17, 2003 would be invalid. PCN Bank Corporation v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, 831 A.2d 1269, 1282-83 (Pa Commw. 2003). The decision has no effect on the outcome in Ms. G~'s situation, as she alleges that the she and Mr. G~ entered into a common law marriage prior to September 17, 2003. Moreover, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has not abolished common law marriage, and the Social Security Administration is not bound by a State court decision unless it is consistent with the rulings of the State's highest court. The Social Security Administration continues to follow POMS instructions which state that Pennsylvania common law marriages are recognized.
_22A statute provides that, under certain conditions, a couple's ceremonial marriage becomes a valid marriage as of the date the impediment is removed, i.e., the date the prior marriage to someone else is terminated by death, divorce, or annulment. 23 Pennsylvania Statutes and Consolidated Statutes Annotated (PA C.S.A.) § 1702. That statute, however, does not apply to validate an attempted common law marriage. See id. See also Covington v. Covington, 617 A.2d 1318, 1320 (Pa. Super. 1992) (curative statute not applicable to a marriage not entered into pursuant to the statutory requirements of licensing and ceremonial marriage registered in marriage license bureau). Similarly, Social Security's deemed widow provision will not apply where the attempted marriage was not a ceremonial marriage. 20 C.F.R. § 404.346.
_33In a letter dated January 19, 2004, Ms. G~'s representative cited Renshaw v. Heckler, 787 F.2d. 50 (2d Cir. 1986), in support of Ms. G~'s claim. In that case, a woman had applied for Social Security widow's benefits, claiming that she and the wage earner, who died domiciled in New York, had a valid common law marriage under the law of Pennsylvania. The couple had traveled with relatives through Pennsylvania during eight trips to Virginia and North Carolina. 787 F.2d at 51-52. The court noted that there were no Pennsylvania cases directly on point and relied on two New York cases to conclude that a New York court would find that the couple had contracted a valid common law marriage in Pennsylvania. 787 F.2d at 53. The court found that, although the alleged widow had provided no proof of verba di praesenti, she had presented proof of cohabitation and reputation. Id. Noting that the evidence of reputation was not extensive, the court relied on the fact that the couple had held themselves out as husband and wife to the three people they knew who they saw in Pennsylvania -- his mother, her brother, and their daughter -- in addition to the husband making a telephone reservation for a room for himself, his "wife," and their daughter. Id. The court wrote, however, "In different circumstances, such facts alone might not prove sufficient." Id. Thus, the court did not rely solely on those Pennsylvania contacts to establish the presumption of common law marriage based on cohabitation and reputation. The court also noted that there was uncontroverted evidence with regard to the couple's relationship over 21 years, the couple's intent to live as husband and wife during that time, and the fact that all of the couple's relative, friends, and acquaintances considered them to be husband and wife. Id. The evidence in Renshaw established that the wife assumed the husband's last name and wore a wedding ring, the couple filed joint tax returns as husband and wife, and the husband listed the wife as his wife and beneficiary on his life insurance policy. 787 F.2d at 51. Thus, the claimant in Renshaw had submitted substantially more evidence of reputation than has Ms. G~. Therefore, while we agree that the standards described in Renshaw would apply here, we believe Ms. G~ has not yet met those standards. Moreover, we note that the facts of the two New York cases relied upon in Renshaw also differ significantly from Ms. G~'s situation. See 787 F.2d at 51. In McCullon v. McCullon, 410 N.Y.S.2d 226 (NY Sup. 1978), the couple filed joint tax returns, maintained joint accounts, and shared title to their home as husband and wife. 410 N.Y.S.2d at 227. In addition, the wife wore a wedding band, assumed her husband's last name, and worked in the home, caring for the couple's three children. 410 N.Y.S.2d at 227-28. In the other case relied upon in Renshaw, the court relied on the fact that, not only did the couple hold themselves out as husband and wife during a one-month stay in Pennsylvania, they also conducted themselves as husband in wife in New York, where they lived, and on visits to Washington D.C. Skinner v. Skinner, 150 N.Y.S.2d 739, 741 (NY Sup. 1956). The couple held joint title to their home and automobiles as husband and wife, were known as husband and wife at church and social functions, and registered for accommodations as husband and wife while traveling. Id.
B. PR 99-110 Widow's application of Joan P~ on the account of Frank P~, deceased wage-earner, SSN~
Pennsylvania statutory law follows its common law by providing that marriages within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity (including first cousins) are not void, but are voidable while both parties to the marriage are alive. Pennsylvania statutory law prohibits any proceeding to challenge the legality of a voidable marriage after the death of one of the parties.
Because it is often difficult to prove a common-law marriage or to demonstrate intent directly, Pennsylvania law recognizes a rebuttable presumption of common-law marriage where there is constant cohabitation and a broad, general reputation of marriage in the community.
You asked us for an interpretation of Pennsylvania law, specifically whether the wage-earner, Frank P~, and Joan P~, who are alleged to be first cousins, could nonetheless intend to enter into and create a valid common-law marriage in Pennsylvania.
Our review of the documentation you provided us indicates that the wage-earner's surviving and legally-divorced former spouse has asserted that Frank P~ and Joan P~ are first cousins. Pennsylvania statutory law, 23 Pa.C.S. § 1304(e), provides that a marriage license may not be issued if the applicants are related within specified degrees of consanguinity, including if either the man or woman seeking the marriage license are first cousins.
However, Pennsylvania common law traditionally recognized that marriages between first cousins are not void at inception, but only potentially voidable by a party to the marriage. In re Ninehouser's Estate, 20 Dist. 969, 59 Pitts. 465, 466 (1911) (holding that where marriage between first cousins took place after the passage of the Act the 1901 [the statutory predecessor to 23 Pa.C.S. § 1304] and was not questioned during its existence, the marriage was voidable and not void, so as to permit the widow to receive the decedent's estate.) See also Hornbake v. Hornbake, 72 Pa.Super. 605 (1919); Miller's Estate, 34 Pa.Super. 385 (1907) (holding that marriage licensure act is directory only, and not mandatory, and that a valid marriage can be contracted without such license).
While 23 Pa.C.S. § 1304(e) appears to create an impediment to a common-law marriage between first cousins, Pennsylvania statutory law follows its common law by providing that marriages within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity are not void, but are voidable while both parties to the marriage are alive. 23 Pa.C.S. § 1704. Section 1703 also appears to extend and change common law by prohibiting any proceeding to challenge the legality of a voidable marriage after the death of one of the parties. Section 1704 states that where a marriage otherwise voidable as within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity has "[n]ot been dissolved during the lifetime of the parties, the unlawfulness of the marriage shall not be inquired into after the death of either of the parties to the marriage."
The prohibition of inquiry into a marriage's legality after the death of a party to the marriage appears to reflect the traditional reluctance of courts to upset the rights of presumed legitimate children by invalidating a marriage. In re Stevenson's Estate, 116 A. 162, 165 (1922) ("When the lips of a man are sealed by death, and he leaves no satisfactory evidence as to the existence of such contract, courts will be very slow to establish it in derogation of the undoubted rights of those who follow him."); accord, Osterling's Estate, 185 A. 790 (1936).
As indicated in the file, Joan P~ and the wage-earner raised three children during the period of their alleged marriage. If the wage-earner, during his final months of life, had sought to avoid his support obligation to Joan P~ and the children by asserting that he and Jane P~ were first cousins, and therefore never legally-married, a Pennsylvania court would likely reject such a defense, to avoid bastardizing the children. In view of Section 1704, it appears to be too late for the wage-earner's surviving divorced spouse to challenge the legality
of the marital relationship based upon their alleged status as first cousins. Although our research has not found a factually similar case, we conclude that, even if SSA were to decide that Frank and Joan P~ were first cousins, such an impediment would not be fatal to the creation of a common-law marriage. At best, their alleged status as first cousins would have given rise to a potentially voidable, rather than void, common-law marriage, if SSA determines that they intended and entered into a common-law marriage.
Joan P~ has responded to the allegation that she and the wage earner were first cousins by averring that they "were and were not" first cousins. Joan P~ alleges that although the wage- earner was raised by his parents as if he were their natural child, he was not in fact a natural child of the couple. She alleges that the wage-earner's father conceived him with another woman, and that in 1932, when the child was born, he and the wage-earner's mother agreed to raise the child as if he were their natural child. She further avers that the wage-earner never sought a marriage license in the years they were together because he was never told that they were not first cousins. Finally, she states that she would not have risked having three children with the wage-earner if they were in fact first cousins.
You have asked us whether Joan P~'s belief that she and the wage- earner were not first cousins establishes sufficient intent by her to enter into a common-law marriage. While we cannot provide you with a definition of intent in Pennsylvania that would precisely fit the facts of this case, we conclude that Joan P~'s allegations, if found to be credible, would evidence her intent to enter into a common-law marriage, particularly when considered in conjunction with their ongoing relationship and raising of three children.
Because it is often difficult to prove a common law marriage or to demonstrate such intent directly, Pennsylvania law recognizes a rebuttable presumption of common-law marriage where two essential elements are present: constant cohabitation and a broad, general reputation of marriage in the community. DeMedio v. DeMedio, 257 Pa.Super. 290 (1969). Section 1704 appears to foreclose any inquiry into whether the wage-earner could have voided the marriage while he was alive. However, the material you provided us shows that Joan P~ and the wage-earner lived together between 1963 and 1997, entered into a mortgage as husband and wife, filed federal tax returns jointly, and raised three children. There are statements by other family members that they were viewed as husband and wife. We recognize that SSA will need to make the determination as to the existence of a common-law marriage, but we can find nothing in the materials provided to us suggesting that either Joan P~ or the wage-earner lacked the requisite intent to enter into a common-law marriage.