Court recognizes same-sex marriage rights
Earlier ruling on common-law relationships overturned
Michael Hunter and Stephen Carter met in February 1996, and began dating shortly after.
By July of that year, they were living together, and on Christmas, Mr. Hunter proposed.
The two completed their exchange of wedding rings on Feb. 18, 1997, and considered that date to be their anniversary.
Over the course of the next 16 years, they bought homes together, supported each other financially, gave each other medical and financial power of attorney and named each other executors of their wills.
Still, that was not enough to convince Beaver County Common Pleas President Judge John D. McBride that the men were in a common-law marriage, entitling Mr. Hunter to not have to pay a 15 percent inheritance tax on Mr. Carter’s estate after Mr. Carter, 52, died on April 20, 2013, from injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash.
On Monday, the state Superior Court reversed Judge McBride, finding that the man erred in his conclusion.
“In sum, the evidence clearly established that Hunter and
Carter, like countless loving couples before them, expressed ‘an agreement to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time,’” the Superior Court panel wrote. “Therefore, we conclude that Hunter proved, by clear and convincing evidence, that he and Carter had entered into a common law marriage on February 18, 1997.”
“The families are very pleased and excited about the decision,” said attorney Sam Hens-Greco, who represents Mr. Hunter. “Having the formal recognition of being legally married is very important to him, and it affirms that commitment they had for each other. “It’s bittersweet.” In May 2016, Mr. Hunter, 62, of Economy was attempting to complete probate on Mr. Carter’s estate when he learned that he would be subject to Pennsylvania’s 15 percent inheritance tax because the two were not legally married. That meant, Mr. Hunter said, he had to pay more than $20,000.
“We had taken every legal precaution that we thought we could when we were together,” he said. “We tried to do the things lawyers said were possible and would be helpful in case of emergency.”
He filed a petition in Beaver County asking that his and Mr. Carter’s relationship be recognized as a common-law marriage, entitling him to pay zero inheritance tax like all other married couples. Although Pennsylvania law no longer recognizes commonlaw marriage, anyone in such a relationship prior to 2005 is granted that right.
Mr. Hunter’s petition was supported by members of Mr. Carter’s family and was not contested in any way -— not even by the state Department of Revenue and the U.S. Social Security Administration, which expressly declined to participate in the hearing, despite possible financial consequences, the Superior Court opinion noted.
Still, Judge McBride denied the petition, finding that same-sex couples could not legally marry in Pennsylvania until May 2014, so therefore, common-law marriage did not apply, and that Mr. Hunter failed to prove he and Mr. Carter even had a common-law marriage.
But the Superior Court, in its opinion, wrote that Judge McBride was wrong in his interpretation, particularly given all of the recent court precedent declaring previous provisions against gay marriage to be unconstitutional.
Mr. Carter died two months before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
“[Court precedent] teach[es] that 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. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. “To deprive Hunter of the opportunity to establish his rights as Carter’s commonlaw spouse, simply because he and Carter are a samesex couple, would violate both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment.”
The court noted that in the past two years, several Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas, including Philadelphia, Chester, Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks, have validated pre-2005, same-sex common-law marriages.
“I’m happy that it all worked out, and somebody else will also be helped by it,” Mr. Hunter said. “For me, personally, it’s sort of a vindication.”