Judge deems gay couple as spouses after 1 partner's death

AP News
|
Posted: Jul 31, 2015 5:29 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A judge has recognized a 2001 same-sex union as a common-law marriage in Pennsylvania even though one partner died before gay marriage became legal, a ruling that has family lawyers across the state buzzing about the potential implications.

Sabrina Maurer's case involves her fight over death benefits and inheritance taxes — as well as access to their safety deposit box — after the 2013 death of Kim Underwood.

Bucks County Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. found that the women retroactively qualify as common-law spouses because of their 2001 church union.

Underwood died a year before a federal judge ordered Pennsylvania to conduct same-sex marriages and recognize those performed earlier. Fritsch's ruling Wednesday appears to extend that decision to include earlier common-law unions, at least in Bucks County.

"Is this going to create an avalanche of issues that are going to crop up?" said family lawyer Helen Casale, who helped the American Civil Liberties Union win the case that overturned the state's gay marriage ban last year. "I think it's very possible, for better or worse."

The effects of Fritsch's decision could also be thorny, especially if judges around the state concur. Courts would have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a common-law marriage applied, and whether petitioners should be granted alimony, marital assets, inheritance-tax refunds or even backdated marriage licenses.

To succeed, they would have to show they considered themselves married before the state's common-law marriage provision ended on Jan. 1, 2005.

Maurer had an unusually strong case, her lawyer said.

She and Underwood had been married before 100 people in an Episcopal church in Maplewood, New Jersey, in 2001. They shared bank accounts and exchanged power of attorney. And Underwood's parents, Michael and Patricia Underwood of Haddonfield, New Jersey, supported Maurer's claim of survivorship.

"I'm hopeful that this helps other people who might not have had the same support of their relationship when their partner was alive," Maurer, a 47-year-old medical writer, said Friday.

She and Underwood were friends at Mount Holyoke College and later reconnected when Underwood was hospitalized at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where Maurer was a pharmacy resident. They moved to Doylestown a year after they were married.

Maurer was the primary breadwinner. Underwood, who was born with a heart defect, taught college English part-time. As marriage bans began to fall across the country, they talked of getting married again in a civil ceremony. However, Underwood's condition worsened, and she died in November 2013 at age 44.

Their tenuous legal bond became clear when a bank denied Maurer access to their joint safety deposit box afterward. Pittsburgh lawyer Mary Hackett, another Mount Holyoke graduate, offered to help. Maurer ultimately went to court seeking a declaration of marriage.

Fritsch signed off on it.

Maurer does not expect an appeal. She has settled with an insurance company over Underwood's death benefits, and said the state — which under Gov. Tom Wolf did not contest her suit — seems poised to refund her inheritance taxes.

"The important part to Sabrina is that the marriage was validated," Hackett said Friday. "(She) hopes that people take a look at their rights, at things they were deprived of — benefits, status — and reconsider whether or not they have legal rights ... to try to undo what was done in the past."