HRMML Attorneys Secure Major Victory for “Common Law” Marriage Equality

June 15, 2016

Attorneys Steven Lupin, Lisa Shearman, and Joseph Catuzzi of the Montgomery County law firm Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin secured a significant legal victory for Kathryn V. Ward (“Ginny”), the surviving spouse of a same-sex relationship. Following an evidentiary hearing to determine if the requirements of common law marriage were satisfied, Judge Lois E. Murphy of the Montgomery County Orphan’s Court issued an Order that, “Kathryn V. Ward and Elaine M. Brim entered into a valid and enforceable marriage under the common laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania . . .  and Kathryn V. Ward, as surviving spouse is entitled to all the spousal rights and benefits that are afforded to legally married individuals under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Elaine passed away four months after same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania following the Whitewood v. Wolf decision.  Due to the advanced stage of her cancer, Elaine and Ginny were incapable of reaping the legal benefits of that historic case by obtaining a marriage license in Pennsylvania. Lacking such license, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Ginny’s application for Elaine’s benefits. This also precluded Ginny from applying for her Social Security benefits.

Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin filed a Petition for Declaratory Judgment and supporting Brief with over 150 pages of supporting documentation showing that the relationship indisputably constituted a marriage dating back to October 3, 1990.  Since common law marriage in Pennsylvania was eliminated in 2005, evidence was presented to surpass this legal hurdle. While the accompanying legal argument was grounded in the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution, the heart of the argument was based in fairness.  The attorneys argued that it would be illogical and unjust to ignore certain social realities that uniquely affected the relationship.

Specifically, the attorneys argued that the couple’s life together demonstrated that marriage is not a piece of paper, but rather a commitment and a way of life.  In light of the substantial evidence which established that the couple exchanged vows, co-mingled all of their assets, took financial and legal advice to protect their relationship, and were perceived by family and friends as being married, Judge Murphy declared their common law marriage as valid and enforceable and issued an Order affording Ginny all the rights and benefit of a spouse.

Upon delivery of the Judge’s opinion, Ginny was elated, stating, “I didn’t think that I would see it in my lifetime – I always hoped, and today my hopes were realized.  I wish that Elaine had been here to share this moment, but she is always with me in spirit.” Steve Lupin, the managing partner of Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin, said, “We believe that this is a groundbreaking case. Ginny and our firm hope that, in the future, this decision will help others similarly situated.”

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