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Common Law Marriage

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In some states, laws convey marital status to couples who live together as man and wife without ever having obtained a marriage license or participated in a marriage ceremony. Even if the laws of one state do not recognize common law marriages, the marriage will usually be recognized if it was formed in a state that does permit them.

A common law marriage is no different from a ceremonial marriage - it is simply a marriage without the formalities. However, since formalities are absent, certain requirements must be met to prove the existence of a common law marriage.

Requirements

A valid common law marriage must meet the basic requirements of a licensed marriage - the person must be of age and not already married. Additionally, the couple must:

  • openly cohabitate or live together;
  • hold themselves out or conduct themselves in public as man and wife, so that they are believed to be married by others in the community; and
  • have an intent or agreement that they are in a marital relationship, i.e. are man and wife.

How long do we have to live together before a common law marriage is formed?

There is no specific time period required. You must have an agreement that the two of you are married and have held yourself out as man and wife.

Sidebar: Common law marriages can be "verified" by the parties by making and registering a "declaration of informal marriage" in the county in which they reside.

Can I just tell a few friends that I'm married in order for a common law marriage to exist?

No. Holding yourself out as married to the public means letting more than a few close friends know that you consider yourself married. However, actually announcing a marriage is not required. Actions such as living together for a period of time and referring to each other as "husband" or "wife" prove the intent to be married.

We've never talked about marriage but I used my partner's name when we rented apartments and on utility bills. Do we have a common law marriage?

No. Although you can argue that you have held yourself out to the public as married, the two of you have no agreement or intent to be married. Without an agreement, a common law marriage is not formed.

For years, my partner has introduced me as his "wife" although we were never actually married. Do we have a common law marriage?

Yes, assuming you are cohabitating and the public believes you are married. By not contradicting your "husband" when you were introduced as his "wife," it appears that you had an agreement or intent to be married over the course of several years.

I've lived with my girlfriend for many years and everyone believes we are married. We plan to get married in the future but in the meantime have we established a common law marriage?

No. An agreement to marry in the future means you do not have a present intent to be married. Although the two of you are living together and apparently are holding yourself out as married, there is no present agreement between the two of you that you are currently married.

My husband and I were divorced but are now living together again and our family believes we are married. Have we established a common law marriage?

Yes. If you meet the requirements, you can create a common law marriage even though you are legally divorced.

I'm 17. Can I establish a common law marriage?

No. You must be at least 18 to enter into a common law marriage.

I've been living with my girlfriend for 4 years (since I was 17). We refer to each other as husband and wife, and our family believes we are married. Do we have a common law marriage?

Yes. At the age of 17, the law does not permit you to be in a common law marriage, but once you turn 18 years old, a common law marriage comes into existence if all the other requirements are present.

If we split up, do we need an actual divorce?

Yes. Although common law marriage exists, common law divorce does not. The marriage ends only through death, divorce or an annulment.