Spouse’s testimony enough to assert Pa. common-law marriage, Md. appeals court rules

A Pennsylvania man who says that he and his deceased partner privately exchanged vows to create a common-law marriage more than 20 years ago has adequately shown the marriage exists in order bring a wrongful death lawsuit in Maryland, the state’s second-highest court ruled this week.

In a reported opinion, the Maryland Appellate Court found that the man’s testimony alone is enough to establish a common-law marriage existed in Pennsylvania, though his credibility can still be challenged in court.

The man, Thomas Zadnik, filed his wrongful death claim against a Johns Hopkins physician in 2021. He alleged that the doctor committed medical negligence in treating Zadnik’s partner, Margaret Conway, who died in 2017 from colon cancer.

In Maryland, however, a wrongful death lawsuit generally can only be brought by a spouse, parent or child of the person who died.

Zadnik asserted that he and Conway privately exchanged vows at their Pennsylvania home in 1998. There was no officiant or witness present, according to the 16-page opinion.

Common-law marriage is not part of Maryland law, Judge Donald E. Beachley wrote, but Maryland recognizes marriages that are valid where they took place. Pennsylvania allowed for common-law marriage until 2005 and continues to recognize those that took place before 2005, according to the opinion.

The doctor being sued by Zadnik, Richard Ambinder, asked to dismiss the wrongful death suit on the grounds that Zadnik did not have standing because he and Conway were not legally married. A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge agreed and dismissed the case with prejudice.

The three-judge panel of the Appellate Court reversed, noting that in Pennsylvania, a common-law marriage could be created “by an exchange of words … spoken with the specific purpose of creating the legal relationship of husband and wife.”

If one spouse is deceased, the testimony of the surviving spouse is enough to establish a “genuine dispute of material fact” regarding whether the marriage existed, the court found. Zadnik did not need to prove that he and Conway lived together or had a reputation of being married.

“Contrary to the circuit court’s analysis, Mr. Zadnik’s testimony does not need to be accompanied by proof of cohabitation and reputation and may be sufficient on its own to prove the existence of a common law marriage, depending on whether the trier of fact deems his testimony credible,” Beachley wrote.

Ambinder can still challenge the credibility of Zadnik’s testimony by raising questions about cohabitation or reputation, but the circuit court should not have concluded that Zadnik’s testimony alone was inadequate to let the case continue, the panel wrote.

“If a factfinder finds Mr. Zadnik’s testimony credible, his description of this exchange of words, in and of itself, occurring in Pennsylvania prior to January 1, 2005, could prove by clear and convincing evidence that he and Ms. Conway created a common law marriage,” the panel concluded.

Zadnik’s lawyer, Thomas O’Toole, did not return a phone call requesting comment. Ambinder’s lawyer, M. Peggy Chu, could not be reached for comment.

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