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New Vows for Dozens in PA Marriage Mess

Posted Oct 10, 2007 6:15 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A first-of-a-kind case in Pennsylvania has called the validity of an untold number of marriages into question, prompting many committed couples to resolve the issue by simply re-taking their vows even though it hasn't yet been upheld on appeal.

Those who don't redo their original ceremony face troubling questions about survivor benefits and other legal issues if one spouse dies or the couple separates before the issue is resolved, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The case that caused the uproar was brought by a 21-year-old York County woman who wanted out of her one-year marriage. Because it had been performed by a minister who was ordained on the Internet, however, her lawyer thought it was invalid under state law—and the judge agreed.

Although it won't be binding legal precedent even in York County until it's upheld on appeal, many couples are remarrying just to end any uncertainty about their marital status. Meanwhile, David Cleaver, who serves as solicitor for the statewide Association of Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans Court, says it should serve as a wake-up call to clerks in all 67 Pennsylvania counties that they need to be sure the officiant who signs a marriage certificate is legally qualified to do so.

Especially because many couples today are married by an individual who isn't a minister, rabbi or other recognized official at an established bricks-and-mortar religious facility, uncertainty could be an issue for many Pennsylvanians, the newspaper writes. In Bucks County, near Philadelphia, at least 45 couples applied for new marriage licenses after Register of Wills Barbara Reilly urged those whose marital status might be questioned to do so at a news conference last month.

"Among them were three pregnant women," the article states. "One of the women was scheduled to undergo induced labor the next day, Reilly said, so a judge waived the required three-day waiting period and married the couple on the spot."

The issue of marriages that aren't legally marriages because an unrecognized person officiated isn't just a problem in Pennsylvania, either. As discussed in an earlier ABAJournal.com post, it could also arise for couples in at least half a dozen other states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Nevada, New York, Tennessee and Virginia.

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