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What Is Common Law Marriage?

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: 20 November 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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Feryll
Post 3

It's a scary thought that you might be living with your girlfriend and have no intentions of marrying her and getting into any type of a legal agreement. Then after two years you decide to end the relationship and you discover that the court recognizes your relationship as a common law marriage and you are subject to the same rules as if you were legally married and are going through a divorce.

Not that I have any wealth to speak of, but I would be upset to learn that she was entitled to half of everything when we never even went through a wedding and we were never legally married. I guess I need to make sure I understand all of the rules and laws of the state where I live.

mobilian33
Post 2

Marriage has turned into a way for governments and lawyers to make money. You have to pay for marriage licenses. Then when you get a divorce you have to pay lawyers just so you can go your separate ways. I think marriage is better left as a religious union and the government and the legal system should be left out.

Animandel
Post 1

I don't understand why any state or country needs to recognize common law marriages. I mean, there is no reason two people can't get married if they want to be married. Common law marriage is like trying to have your cake and eat it too.

You can't have two opposite things at the same time. Either you are married or you are not married. There shouldn't be a middle ground. Common law marriage makes absolutely no sense, and these types of relationships should not be put in the same category as legal marriage.

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