In order to be a surviving spouse to inherit under the intestate laws (the statutory laws that apply when one dies without a will), a person needs to have been married to the decedent first. You might think this is pretty obvious, but a recent Orphans’ Court case dealt with the issue of what it means to be “married” in Pennsylvania.

We’ve all seen the wedding announcements in the newspaper where the couple is married by a friend of the family ordained by an internet-based organization.

But, is that legal in Pennsylvania?

In some cases, yes; in other cases, no.

“Common law marriage” was abolished by statute in Pennsylvania after January 1, 2005. Section 1301 of the Pennsylvania Marriage Act requires that a couple obtain a marriage license from the state. Marriages may be performed by a number of officiants, including judges, mayors. and clergy of any “regularly established church or congregation.”

You can picture the wedding… it’s a beautiful sunny day. Everyone is in a wonderful mood. The happy couple has selected the groom’s dearest and oldest friend to officiate the marriage. The dear friend, who is not a member of the clergy in any way, shape, or form, learns that he can be ordained as a minister to marry the happy couple, simply by filling out some basic information and paying a fee online, which he gladly does for them. The ceremony goes off without a hitch. Everyone is happy. The bride is beautiful. The champagne and hors d’oeuvres are flowing. All is right with the world – until the husband dies tragically without a will a mere four years later.

The deceased husband’s mother, who attended the wedding ceremony, seeks to open the estate after her son’s death. The wife, assuming she is to inherit everything from her husband as the surviving spouse under the Pennsylvania laws of intestacy, challenges her mother-in-law’s petition and files her own petition seeking to be declared the surviving spouse of the decedent and therefore, the rightful intestate heir. Litigation ensues in the Orphans’ Court over the validity of the marriage.

That is exactly what occurred in Estate of Zimmerman, a recent case from the Orphan’s Court in Montgomery County, Pa., in which the wife brought a declaratory judgment action to be recognized as the surviving spouse of the decedent, asserting that the formal marriage ceremony performed by a close friend of her now-deceased husband, and with a Pennsylvania marriage license, was indeed valid.

The court agreed.

One of the main issues was whether the friend – who had been ordained online – was qualified to perform the marriage. A secondary issue involved the validity of the marriage license itself because the dear friend – the online ordained minister – did not complete the marriage license correctly and there were alleged problems with the license itself.

While he could not remember, five years after the fact, which organization had ordained him for the purposes of performing the ceremony and could not produce the certificate provided to him, the friend testified that he had applied online to the organization with “the easiest process,” that he believed that he could properly perform the ceremony, and that he would not have officiated had he not believed he was not properly ordained.

The wife also produced an email from the First Nation Church and Ministry, establishing that the friend had been granted a two-year ordination with the minister’s license number, and a letter from the organization detailing the long and established history of the church and its process of ordination. The letter explained that the church does not grant instant credentials, but rather does background checks on applicants to determine character, profession, and reputation in the community.

Noting no appellate court decisions on the issue of internet ordination, the court looked to two lower court cases on the issue.

In Hever v. Hollerbush, the court voided the marriage, finding that the ceremony was performed by a “minister” of an entirely online organization with no real congregation or place of worship, and that the officiant, who received the credentials within minutes of applying for them and who had never attended any meetings of the “church,” was the only witness. In contrast, in O’Neill v. O’Neill, the court found the marriage valid where the ceremony was performed by the bride’s uncle, who had been ordained more than three years before the wedding and who testified that he took his responsibilities seriously and had counseled the couple prior to the ceremony.

The Zimmerman court concluded that the marriage was valid between the decedent and the petitioner under Pennsylvania law for a number of reasons. The evidence showed that the couple had a formal wedding ceremony and all involved – the couple, the friend who acted as officiant, and family and friends who attended the ceremony – believed that the friend had the authority to perform the wedding, and the couple had acted “knowingly and voluntarily…in pursuit of a valid marriage certificate.” Noting First Nation Church’s history and non-profit status, the court found sufficient evidence that the officiant had been ordained a “minister” of a “regularly established church or congregation.”

The court also noted that the filing of the marriage certificate – which apparently neither the friend nor the couple did – did not invalidate the marriage because filing was a “ministerial act designed to record proof of the marriage.” The marriage was valid as of the date of the ceremony.