A Brief Introduction to Common-Law Marriage

(US family law and generally) Marriage has historically been a respected institution espoused by almost every society. Usually, marriage constitutes a legal and sometimes religious mandate between licensed officials to wed a couple, such that the union is recognized by the government and, in some circumstances, a religious entity. You can choose to marry under the auspices of a religious leader or go to your city hall, after obtaining a marriage license.

However, there are many instances in which a couple might choose to carry on all the activities of a married couple without having gone through the legal or religious formalities. This is known as a common-law marriage, and it has its origins in England and early America when priests and licensed marriage officials were few and far between. Getting to an official to be married proved a hardship or outright impossible for many couples, so the law set aside certain provisions that ratified a union between man and woman that ensured they held the same benefits and legal recognition as the more formal marriages.

Present Day Requirements and Acceptance of Common-Law Marriages

It is important to note that not all states recognize common-law marriages, although those that don’t will often respect the validity of a common-law marriage formed in another, accepting state should the couple move to a non-accepting state. The states that do explicitly allow common-law marriages are Colorado, Alabama, Utah, Rhode Island, Texas, South Carolina, Montana, Oklahoma, the District of Columbia, Iowa, and Kansas. There are a handful of other states that allow common-law marriages with varying stipulations.

Pennsylvania allows you and a spouse to have a common-law marriage if you’ve met all requirements before the first day of the year 2005; if you’ve cohabitated for this purpose on any date afterward, your relationship is not eligible and you need to get married formally.

• New Hampshire allows common-law marriages for purposes of inheriting an estate or will. Thus, if you or your significant other passes away and you weren’t married formally but adhered to the stipulations of the common-law variety, then you or your spouse are privy to the estate/will. In states where common-law marriages are not for inheritance purposes, then you do not automatically have any claim on inheritance-the family of the deceased receives primary consideration in the absence of a will.

• The only common-law marriages ratified by Ohio are the ones created before October 1991. After this date, mutual consent to live as husband and wife is not formally recognized as a marriage by the state and legal ramifications do not apply.

• Georgia only recognizes common-law marriages formed before January 1997.

• Idaho recognizes common-law marriages created before January 1996.

How is Divorce Handled in a Common-Law Marriage?

Somewhat asymmetrically, just because you don’t need a formal ceremony for cohabitation in a common-law marriage doesn’t mean you don’t need one for divorce. In fact, every state that accepts the common-law option requires you to undergo formal divorce proceedings, just like any traditionally married couple. All the issues that are normally dealt with in divorce proceedings must be handled by family court-alimony, child support, estate division, etc. It is important to realize that your rights to property division are not the same as in a traditional, formal legal marriage, and these vary from state to state.

About the author

Thomas Platt is a freelance writer who specializes in legal topics such as Medical Equipment Fraud, Medical Malpractice, Tax Fraud, Criminal Defense, Family Law and other topics as well.