Mark and Susan had been living together in a small apartment in Baltimore for 12 years. Both of their names were on the lease and they share a used car to commute back and forth to their jobs. Both names appeared on the utility bills and although they never had an actual “ceremony,” they always considered themselves to be husband and wife. Mark and Susan always assumed that the state of Maryland would consider their relationship to be a “common law marriage.” Ten months ago, Susan began experiencing unfamiliar stomach pains. Her doctor assured her that she was fine and that no follow-up examinations were necessary. Six months ago, Susan was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Tragically, Susan died last week. Mark is certain that Susan was the victim of medical malpractice and wants to file an action for medical malpractice. Mark is now concerned that his common law marriage might not be valid. Is it?
Common Law Marriage
A “common law marriage” is one in which the parties may hold themselves out as a husband and wife, and under certain circumstances, be deemed married without a marriage license or ceremony. Maryland does not allow the creation of a “common law” marriage, a relationship in which a couple lives together but have not participated in a lawful ceremony. Unlike some other states, in Maryland a couple cannot acquire marital rights and responsibilities by living together for a particular period of time. However, Maryland does recognize as valid, common law marriages created in other states if the legal requirements of those states have been met.
Because of Maryland’s law, despite living together, owning a car and holding themselves out as “man and wife,” Mark and Susan’s relationship is not recognized as a valid marriage by the state of Maryland.
In the setting of a medical malpractice (or personal injury) claim, this has serious consequences. For example, in a medical malpractice lawsuit alleging wrongful death, the basis of such a lawsuit is essentially that due to the negligence of a health care provider, such as a doctor, nurse, physician’s assistant or hospital, a loved one has died. The death is considered to be “wrongful” because you, as a Plaintiff, are alleging that it was the negligence of the health care provider that cause your loved one’s death.
Typically, the person or persons allowed to recover for wrongful death are those members of the decedent’s immediate family, such as spouse, children or mother or father—depending on who the ‘legal beneficiaries’ are in each given situation. Sadly, for Mark, it is highly unlikely that he would qualify as one of Susan’s beneficiaries since they were never, under Maryland law, legally married.
An in-depth discussion of Wrongful Death, Survival Actions and filing medical malpractice actions in the state of Maryland and District of Columbia is also covered in our White Paper: “Wrongful Death and Survival Actions.”
Disclaimer: As is the case with all of our blogs and the writings posted on our website, we are not offering legal advice to our readers. This information in our series,Legal Boot Camp, is being presented in the hope that we can provide some education about the law in Maryland and the District of Columbia. The law in the field of personal injury (and particularly in our sub-specialty of medical malpractice) can be complex and confusing at times. Even in these two jurisdictions where we are licensed to practice, the laws and their interpretation by the courts can vary significantly. It is simply our hope that by presenting this series – Legal Boot Camp - that we can provide a better understanding of some legal principles that can come into play when bringing a civil claim or lawsuit for damages as a result of the wrongdoing of others.
For those who do not live in either Maryland or the Washington, D.C., we hope that we can at least raise some issues for you to consider when you speak with an attorney licensed to practice in the state in which you live. Many times the basic concepts of law are similar. We hope that by raising some of these issues applicable to Maryland and the District of Columbia, you will at least have a basic understanding of some terms and principles that may apply to your situation. Don’t be afraid to raise these issues with your attorney. Education – be it in law or medicine – is our main goal.
Finally, please see our introductory blog for Legal Boot Camp for a better understanding of our mission in presenting this series.