Michael Hunter never had the satisfaction of legally marrying Stephen Carter before Carter’s sudden death in 2013. But a recent court ruling confers upon Hunter the legal status of being Carter’s widower.
The men had presented themselves as a married couple since 1997. They lived together in Philadelphia for several years before moving to the Pittsburgh area in 2005. But Carter died in a motorcycle crash in 2013, before they could legally marry in Pennsylvania.
In 2014, due to the Whitewood ruling, same-sex couples began to marry legally in Pennsylvania. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land in the Obergefell ruling.
Last year, Hunter petitioned to have his union with Carter recognized as a common-law marriage, even though the Pennsylvania state legislature abolished common-law marriage in 2005.
Hunter, 62, emphasized the marital nature of the couple’s relationship dating back to 1997, long before common-law marriage was abolished in the state.
But after holding an evidentiary hearing, Beaver County Common Pleas President Judge John D. McBride declined to grant Hunter’s petition. McBride said it was impossible for the men to have been in a common-law marriage prior to 2005 because marriage equality didn’t begin in Pennsylvania until 2014.
However, in a 23-page opinion issued April 17, the state Superior Court reversed McBride’s ruling. The court said the anti-marriage equality laws cited by McBride always were unconstitutional — including the time period when Hunter and Carter were together.
“Same-sex couples have precisely the same capacity to enter marriage contracts as do opposite-sex couples, and a court today may not rely on the now invalidated provisions of the marriage law to deny that constitutional reality,” wrote Judge H. Jeffrey Moulton Jr., who authored the opinion.
The opinion validates Hunter’s right to survivor benefits, and his right to spousal rates pertaining to Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax.
In the opinion, Moulton noted the strong bond between Hunter and Carter.
“They purchased homes together, prepared and executed mutual wills, supported each other financially and held joint banking and investment accounts,” Moulton wrote.
The Superior Court instructed McBride to enter an order declaring the existence of a common-law marriage between Hunter and Carter as of Feb. 18, 1997, when Carter gave Hunter a wedding ring.
Sam Hens-Greco, an attorney for Hunter, issued this statement: “Michael and Stephen’s family are very thrilled with Judge Moulton’s decision. The court’s recognition that Michael and Stephen were married for nearly 17 years is deeply meaningful for Michael and Stephen’s family. The Superior Court reaffirmed the fundamental principles in Whitewood and Obergefell that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples have the same rights and are to be treated equally — and that Michael and Stephen met the standards necessary for establishing a common-law marriage, like any other couple would be required to do. Hopefully, this decision will make it easier for other similarly situated couples who are seeking recognition of their same-sex common-law marriage.”
Justin F. Robinette, an LGBT-advocacy attorney, also praised the ruling.
“Judge McBride really got it wrong. Essentially, he didn’t understand constitutional law. He based his anti-LGBT ruling on laws that have been declared unconstitutional. If a law is unconstitutional, you can’t continue to give it legal effect. I commend the Superior Court for correcting Judge McBride’s unfortunate error. It’s also great that the Superior Court published its opinion, so that it’s binding on all lower courts in Pennsylvania.”
McBride wasn’t immediately available for comment.