What Is Common Law Marraige And What States Recognize It?

What You Need to Know About Common Law Marriage

Couple Walking Into an Apartment Together
Cavan Images/Iconica/Getty Images

Common Law Marriage is an alternative to traditional marriage. Instead of obtaining a marriage license, a man and woman who live together and “intend to be married” can become common law spouses without a license or a wedding.

By "intend to be married" it is meant that a couple holds themselves out as a married couple to friends, family, and their community. 

It is also known as sui juris marriage, informal marriage, or marriage by habit and repute, is a legal framework in a limited number of jurisdictions where a couple is legally considered married, without that couple having formally registered their relation as a civil or religious marriage.

You can't have a common law marriage if you are already legally married to someone else. 

 

What states still allow common law marriage?

 

Presently only about 15 states and the District of Columbia allow common law marriages. The states that allow common law marriages and the laws surrounding what constitutes such a marriage are:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia (prior to 1/1/97)
  • Idaho (prior to 1/1/96)
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only)
  • Ohio (prior to 10/10/91)
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

 

How does your marriage become common law?

 

A man and woman who live together and “intend to be married” can become common law spouses. Intent to be married can be shown by the couple simply by acting like they were married.

For example, Jennifer and John fall in love and move in together. They plan to marry but never get around to legalizing the union.

In the meantime, Jennifer and John have 3 children together, they share the expense of raising those children and hold themselves out to the community as a married couple. In the states listed above, if having lived together long enough, as husband and wife, they would be considered to be in a common law marriage.

Such acts include:

  • Filing joint tax returns.
  • Using words like "husband" and "wife" when referring to your partner.
  • Using the same last name.
  • Wearing wedding rings.
  • Having children together.

 

What happens if a common law married couple moves to a state that does not allow common law marriage?

 

All marriages, common law or civil, are recognized by every state. If you are common law married and you move to a state that does not allow such marriages, you are still married in the new state because your marriage was valid in the state where it occurred.

 

How do I obtain a divorce from a common law marriage?

 

To obtain a divorce from a common law marriage, you must go through the exact same procedure as traditionally married couples. All the rights and obligations of common law married people are identical to those who are traditionally married; likewise, the dissolution of the marriage is the same as well.

 

Do I need an attorney to obtain a common law marriage or divorce?

 

Often times it is unclear if you are common law married and exactly what benefits and responsibilities common law marriage entails. An attorney can help you understand common law marriage as it applies to your situation. If you need to dissolve a common law marriage, a family attorney can guide you through the process and help you file the necessary paperwork.

If there are children born to the union it is imperative to consult a local attorney to get a clear understanding of how child support and child custody will be handled should the common law marriage end.