Common Law Marriage

It is possible to get married without saying “I do” – at least in a minority of states and the District of Columbia. Currently, 11 states and our nation’s capital, allow heterosexual couples to be considered married without a formal marriage license and without a formal ceremony if they meet the requirements for a common law marriage.
States That Recognize Common Law Marriage
At one time, common law marriages were allowed in the majority of U.S. states. The Supreme Court recognized the validity of common law marriages in 1877, absent a state law that prohibited common law marriages in a specific state. Today, common law marriages are recognized in:
·         Alabama;
·         Colorado;
·         Georgia (if the common law marriage was established prior to January 1, 1997);
·         Idaho (if the common law marriage was established prior to January 1, 1996);
·         Iowa;
·         Kansas;
·         Montana;
·         New Hampshire (solely for inheritance purposes and not for any other rights that traditional marriages confer);
·         Ohio (if the common law marriage was established prior to October 10, 1991);
·         Oklahoma;
·         Pennsylvania (if the common law marriage was established prior to January 1, 2005);
·         Rhode Island;
·         South Carolina;
·         Texas;
·         Utah; and
·         Washington D.C.
General Requirements for the Establishment of a Common Law Marriage
While each of the above states has its own criteria for determining whether or not it will recognize a common law marriage, there are three requirements that are generally required before a common law marriage will be recognized, including:
  • That the couple has lived together for a considerable amount of time. What a state determines to be considerable is usually a matter of common law, rather than statute;
  • That the couple considers themselves to be a married couple. Courts will consider things such as whether they refer to one another as husband and wife socially and on official forms, including tax returns; and
  • That the couple intends to be a married couple.
Differences Between Common Law Marriages and Traditional Marriages
The main difference between common law marriages and traditional marriages is in how the marriage was created. Once a common law marriage has been established, state law requires that the marriage be treated like any other marriage. There are no differences in the rights of the spouses during or after the marriage with the notable exception of New Hampshire which only affords inheritance rights to common law spouses and not the rights of marriage that come when both spouses are living.
What to Do If You Need to Divorce Your Common Law Spouse
While common law couples are able to avoid government licensing and requirements in getting married, they are not able to avoid the courts when getting divorced. None of the states that recognize common law marriages recognize common law divorces. Instead, they all require common law couples who wish to divorce to go through the same formal court proceedings as other couples who were traditionally married.
If you live in one of the common law marriage states and your relationship meets the criteria to have established a common law marriage then you may just have wed without saying “I do.”

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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