What is a Common Law Marriage?

common law marriage

In the legal world, there are many issues that remain in a gray area. Common Law marriage is one such issue. While some states allow it, others don’t. And every state handles the issue differently. Understanding common law marriage is more than understanding a single legal definition. Instead, it involves understanding how every state handles the issue.

What is common law marriage?

This type of marriage is a marriage that occurs out of habit, rather than a legal or religious ceremony. Although each state has different requirements for a common law marriage, they usually require some length of cohabitation. In states that allow this type of marriage, the state recognizes the marriage in the absence of a ceremony. The only necessary action is to prove that you meet the state’s requirements for common law marriage.

If your state deems your relationship to be common law, you can benefit on your federal taxes. However, this only applies if you file for taxes in a state that identifies your marriage.

The issues with common law marriages

Although the definition of this type of marriage might sound simple, it’s far from simple. Some states in the US don’t recognize common law marriages. What one state may recognize as a marriage, another may ignore. This can cause many problems for couples in this type of relationship. Likewise, it can be confusing to understand the requirements that your state has for marriage. States like Rhode Island have confusing requirements that make it difficult to comprehend when you’re in a common law relationship.

As mentioned above, common law marriages affect your tax filing status. However, things become complicated when you move to a state that doesn’t recognize your marriage status. The same holds true for divorce proceedings. However, many states that don’t recognize your marriage do grant you legal rights to obtain a divorce.

It often takes the experience of a lawyer to help someone fully understand the requirements and implications of this marriage. However, there are a few basics that can help you get started.

What states recognize common law marriages?

Many states abolished common law marriages. However, there are still some states that recognize them. These states include:

  • District of Columbia
  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

Of course, every state has different requirements. In Colorado, a couple qualifies for a marriage if they live together. They also need to agree (mutually) to marry and to be openly married in the public eye. In Iowa, the couple needs to cohabitate continuously, show evidence of an agreement and intent to marry, and publicly declare themselves husband and wife. Montana has similar requirements. Each person in the relationship needs to be competent and needs to enter the marriage in mutual agreement. Additionally, they need to cohabitate and carry themselves as a married couple in public. All of the states have similar requirements, although they word it differently.

The Gray Area

You might notice that California did not make it on the list of states that recognize common law marriages. However, much like the definition of this type of marriage, California law remains murky waters. The state does not recognize common law marriages from inside its own state. However, it might recognize a common law marriage from another state. There are some ways that the state can choose to dispute your marriage. But it is possible that the state may recognize your marriage if it was legal in another state.

New Hampshire is another interesting case. When you’re alive, the state does not recognize a common law marriage. However, it may recognize it in death. Upon the death of one person in the relationship, the state recognizes a marriage if it meets three conditions. First, the couple needs to show proof of cohabitation for three or more years. Second, the couple needs to refer to themselves as husband and wife. Lastly, the public needs to presume the couple to be married.

Myths Surrounding The Marriages

It’s no surprise that there are many myths surrounding these marriages. One of the most common misconceptions is that the marriage requires a lengthy period of cohabitation. In some states, there is no specific time of cohabitation. All you need to do is live together and meet the other requirements for marriage.

Another myth is that common law marriages don’t require a divorce. In fact, any recognized marriage impacts your legal rights when you terminate the marriage. You might need to pay alimony or need to split up your property. For this reason, it’s very important to watch what you say and do in a relationship. If you live in a common law state, you need to be wary of publicly addressing your partner as husband or wife. Although you may only do it for a better deal on your new car, it can hurt you down the line.

The final myth surrounding these marriages is that you don’t need a lawyer. The marriage will not end itself. Chances are, you need a lawyer to help you determine how to handle your divorce.