Marriage and Divorce

A Pennsylvania court ruled that a couple was not legally married as a result of their participation in a “reenactment” of a colonial wedding ceremony attended by several family members and conducted by an ordained minister.

Church Law and Tax2000-05-01

Marriage and Divorce

Performance of Marriage Ceremonies

Key point 3-04. All states permit clergy to perform marriage ceremonies. However, some states permit only “ordained” or some other classification of clergy to perform marriage ceremonies. It is important for clergy to determine if they are legally authorized to perform marriages under applicable state law, and in addition to be aware of the legal qualifications for marriage and any license and reporting requirements prescribed by state law.

A Pennsylvania court ruled that a couple was not legally married as a result of their participation in a “reenactment” of a colonial wedding ceremony attended by several family members and conducted by an ordained minister. An employee was killed as a result of a work-related injury. A woman claiming to be the deceased employee’s common law wife filed a claim with the workers compensation agency for death benefits. In support of her claim, the woman testified that she lived with the deceased for two years, and that they considered themselves husband and wife, shared a joint credit card and bank account, and purchased a car in their joint names. The woman also stated that they exchanged wedding vows and rings at a “colonial festival” in the presence of several family members during a ceremony conducted by an ordained minister. The employer opposed the woman’s claim to death benefits. It relied in part on the testimony of the ordained minister who conducted the alleged wedding ceremony. The minister testified that he owned and promoted an annual “colonial festival,” and acknowledged that the woman and the deceased employee participated in “an eighteenth century colonial wedding ceremony” during one of the annual festivals. He insisted, however, that he advised the couple that the marriage ceremony had no legal validity “unless they got the prescribed legal requirements satisfied, namely the blood tests and the license.” The minister also testified that the woman contacted him following the employee’s death, and asked him for a letter stating that he performed an “actual legal marriage ceremony.” The minister refused to do so.

A workers compensation board ruled that the woman and the deceased husband had been lawfully married, and awarded death benefits to the woman. The case was appealed, and a state appeals court reversed this decision. The court began its opinion by noting that “a party claiming common-law marriage to another must offer proof of an actual intention of the parties to form a marriage contract.” The court conceded that the parties had engaged in a colonial wedding ceremony, but it relied on the testimony of the officiating minister that the ceremony was not a valid marriage but rather a reenactment of an eighteenth century colonial marriage. The court also pointed out that the couple had scheduled a wedding in the future, they had filed individual tax returns for the years they were living together, they informed their friends that they were engaged, and they had separate listings in the telephone directory. Allison Park Contractors, Inc. v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board, 731 A.2d 234 (Pa. Common. 1999).

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