PA judge issues historic common-law marriage ruling

PA judge issues historic common-law marriage ruling

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In what is thought to be the first decision of its kind in the nation, a judge in Bucks County issued a ruling last week allowing retroactive recognition of a same-sex common-law marriage.

The decision came in the case of Doylestown resident Dr. Sabrina Maurer, who filed a petition for a retroactive declaration of a common-law marriage after she was forced to pay inheritance tax and was denied other spousal benefits following the death of her partner, Dr. Kimberly Underwood. The couple had been together since 1996, and was joined in a religious ceremony in 2001, before any state legalized same-sex marriage. Underwood died in 2013, six months before Pennsylvania began allowing marriage equality.

Although the state abolished common-law marriages in 2005, it does recognize such unions formed prior to that year.

In his ruling last Wednesday, Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Theodore Fritsch, Jr., wrote that the couple’s “marriage is valid and enforceable, and they are entitled to all the rights and privileges of validly licensed, married spouses in all respects under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

A representative of the state Department of Revenue was present at last week’s proceeding in support of Maurer’s petition.

Underwood, an English professor, died of a complex congenital heart problem in November 2013. Maurer, a medical writer, said the couple was considering marrying out of state before Underwood’s death.

“Once the Supreme Court decision came down in 2013, we did start talking about going to Connecticut to be married by a friend of mine who is a justice of the peace because we honestly didn’t think we’d see Pennsylvania allow gay marriage in our lifetime,” she said. “But that unfortunately was shortly before she became very ill. And then we just ran out of time.”

Maurer said the complications of the state’s non-recognition of their union started almost immediately.

“I couldn’t sign any papers at the funeral home; her parents had to do it. I could have made a fuss and pulled out the power of attorney but her parents were with me. If I hadn’t had a good relationship with her parents, it would have been a different story,” Maurer said.

Because of Underwood’s heart defect, she had been on disability, a plan that included a survivor benefit. Maurer’s claim for the benefit was denied because the company did not recognize her as Underwood’s spouse. Additionally, the company handling Maurer’s employer-sponsored life-insurance plan denied Maurer’s claim.

The Department of Revenue also ordered Maurer to pay a 15-percent inheritance tax on Underwood’s estate, including their joint checking, savings and other accounts.

After Maurer was denied access to inventory Underwood’s safety-deposit box, her sister took to social media to decry the situation, which caught the attention of her former classmate, Mary Hackett, a Pittsburgh-based attorney with Reed Smith, LLP.

Hackett, along with Reed Smith’s Ira Lefton and M. Patrick Yingling, went on to represent Maurer.

Hackett hailed the decision as historic.

“We couldn’t find any other case like this,” she said.

About 20 years ago, a Pennsylvania judge denied a same-sex couple’s petition to have their common-law marriage recognized. Other jurisdictions have allowed same-sex common-law marriages, but none retroactively after the death of one partner.

Fritsch held a hearing on the case in December, and requested the Department of Revenue join the case as an interested party. This spring, the department issued guidance that, based on the 2014 Whitewood ruling overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, same-sex couples should be treated equally in matters of realty-transfer and inheritance-tax issues. The memo further suggested that anyone who could be eligible for a refund should submit an online appeal, which Maurer did.

Before Fritsch’s ruling last week, Hackett submitted additional paperwork taking into account last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling bringing marriage equality nationwide.

Maurer said she was unsure throughout the process if Fritsch’s ruling would be a favorable one.

“We really didn’t know which way it was going to go until he issued the actual declaration,” she said. “He seemed receptive but we weren’t sure and, of course, this had never been done before.”

Maurer will submit the declaration to the Department of Revenue for its expected approval of a refund. The life-insurance company previously settled, and she will also file an appeal with the company handling the disability survivor-benefit claim.

Apart from the tangible effects of the ruling, Maurer said, it also has a symbolic meaning.

“I can legally call myself a widow. I felt very much in limbo after Kim died. It was very disorienting to have to deal with my grief and then be treated as legal strangers,” she said. “So it means a lot to me to be able to say I am Kim’s widow. And Kim would have been so, so angry to see all of these things being piled on me on top of everything else, so this is also truly my final gift to Kim.”

Hackett encouraged others with similar stories to pursue legal recourse.

“Explore your rights,” she said. “Sabrina initially didn’t think she had any rights and there were some very unique facts, such as the ceremonial marriage coupled with the new Pennsylvania law, that enabled her to have her marriage validated. So the facts and circumstances of your relationship might provide you a basis to seek economic benefits or to find the avenue to have your marriage validated.” 

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