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What Is Common Law Marriage?

A common law marriage recognizes the right to alimony.
Washington, D.C., recognizes a form of common law marriage.
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  • Written By: Cassie L. Damewood
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 12 August 2014
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A common law marriage is one in which a couple is considered legally married without obtaining a traditional government issued license or participating in a customary wedding ceremony. Common law marriages in the United States are permitted only in certain states. In a common law state, laws and rights of married couples are extended to unmarried couples if they meet certain criteria established by that particular state. In states that don't recognize common law marriage, there are provisions to recognize such unions should a couple move.

Common law marriage is not recognized in all 50 states in America. If a couple is granted a common law marriage in a state recognizing such unions, however, all states will recognize the union should the couple move. Provisions for common law marriages vary from state to state, as do the rights granted by such unions. Some other countries recognize common law marriages as well. These include Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom. The terms and definitions vary by country.

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Nine US states, plus Washington, D.C. recognize common law marriage with various requirements. These states include Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Washington D.C. also falls into this category. The conditions for legal common law marriage in these states mainly regard the intent of the two parties, length of cohabitation and public declaration and perception of the union. In some cases, other requisites relating to mental competency can apply. Couples interested in finding out more about common law marriage in their particular state can contact state government representatives for specific details.

Six additional states acknowledge common law marriages with restrictions. New Hampshire acknowledges such unions posthumously; the union becomes a marriage only when one of the couple dies. This allows the surviving member the same inheritance benefits of a traditional spouse. In Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, common law marriages are generally recognized if they were established before a certain date. These dates range from October 10, 1991, in Ohio to January 1, 2005, in Pennsylvania.

Rights of common law spouses also vary by state. The rights granted are normally the same or very similar to those of legally married couples. The benefits in a common law state may include inheritance of real goods and property upon the death of a spouse, equal division of property if the union terminates and the right to alimony.

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