Marriage is a legal union of two people. Normally, marriage involves a state-issued license and a ceremony, either religious or civil. However, some states recognize another form of marriage called common law marriage.
In states that recognize them, there are no absolute rules or guidelines for establishing a common law marriage, and whether a common law marriage exists depends on all of the facts of a situation.
However, generally, common law marriage occurs when a couple lives together for an extended time and holds themselves out as married – in such ways as using the same last name, referring to each other as spouses, wearing wedding rings and filing joint tax returns.
Once a common law marriage exists, the rights and obligations of the couple are identical to those of traditionally married couples.
What States Recognize Common Law Marriages?
Currently, these jurisdictions recognize common law marriages:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only)
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
In a few other states, common law marriages are recognized if they were created before the date the practice was abolished. These states are:
- Georgia – if created before 1997
- Idaho – if created before 1996
- Ohio – if created before 1991
- Pennsylvania – if created before 2005
Kentucky recognizes common law marriage only for purposes of awarding workers’ compensation benefits.
Once Established, Is Common Law Marriage Recognized In Other States?
Yes. A marriage that is lawful in the place it was created is recognized by all other states. Here’s an example. Say you establish a common law marriage in Kansas, where the concept is recognized. Then, you move to Maryland. Even though Maryland does not recognize common law marriages, it will recognize your marriage because it was lawfully created in Kansas.
How Is A Common Law Marriage Dissolved?
Once created, a common law marriage is indistinguishable in the eyes of the law from a ceremonial marriage.
Therefore, a common law marriage can only be dissolved through divorce or annulment.
Normally, When Does The Issue Of Common Law Marriage Come Up?
Probably the most common circumstance that requires a court to determine whether a common law marriage exists is when one of the common law couple dies without a will. While spouses can inherit a portion of the deceased’s property under their state’s rules of intestate succession (which I wrote about previously), unrelated persons have no claim.
What Should You Do If You Don’t Want To Have Your Relationship Recognized As A Common Law Marriage?
If you live together in a state that recognizes common law marriages and do not wish to be married, it’s a good idea for you both to sign a statement making it clear that this is your joint intent. This is particularly important if you use the same last name and/or mix property together.
Click here to return to the Law Talk page or here to go to our home page.
**These questions and answers are designed to provide helpful information that can be read quickly. They are neither a full explanation of the subject nor legal advice. To learn more, and to receive individualized legal advice on which you can rely, contact me or another lawyer.