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Courts have a duty to reappraise old doctrines in the light of the facts and values of contemporary life particularly old common law doctrines which the courts themselves created and developed. The continued vitality of the common law depends upon its ability to reflect contemporary values and ethics.
The claimant, John Kretz, filed a fatal claim petition and alleged that he was the common law spouse of the decedent, Janet Stamos, who died in an airplane crash while working for the employer PNC Corporation. In order to establish the requisite verba de praesenti, Kretz submitted an affidavit in which he and the decedent had stated that they had united themselves in marriage through the mutual exchange of words. A Workers' Compensation Judge found that Kretz was the decedent's common law spouse; the decision was affirmed by respondent Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Pennsylvania). The employer appealed, arguing that the doctrine of common law marriage ought to be abandoned, and that even if it was not, Kretz failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required to establish such a union.
The court, after examining the history and judicial criticism of the doctrine of common law marriage, and determining that the instant case was one that called for "anticipatory overruling," held that the time has come to abolish the doctrine. The court noted that many sound reasons existed to abandon a system that allowed the determination of important rights to rest on evidence fraught with inconsistencies, ambiguities and vagaries. According to the court, the circumstances creating a need for the doctrine were not present in today's society. As such, the court held that it would recognize as valid only those Pennsylvania marriages entered into pursuant to the procedures under the 1990 Marriage Law, 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1101-1905. However, the decision was given purely prospective effect. As to the claimant's petition, which was unaffected by the court's abolition of the doctrine, the court held that the claimant met his burden of proof where a common law marriage based upon the exchange of verba in praesenti was found.