A common law marriage is a legal arrangement that presents a couple as being married. Also known as sui iuris marriage, informal marriage, marriage by the fact, or marriage by habit, this arrangement allows a couple to be considered as lawfully married in states that recognize common law marriage. The couple must live together and present themselves as a married couple to society in order for the arrangement to be considered valid and lawful, however.
They accomplish this by organizing their lives like a civilly or religiously married couple. For example, the woman may take her common-law husband’s last name. They also may share a bank account, purchase a home together, and combine assets like income and savings.
If they reside in a state that recognizes this type of cohabitation arrangement, the couple does not need to register their union with civil or religious entities. As long as they maintain this lifestyle for a set number of years as outlined by the state in which they reside, they may be viewed as a common law married couple.
While little is known about the origins of this type of marriage, historians theorize and define common-law unions that society knows today as an evolutionary result of how marriages were arranged and recognized in past eras. In fact, before the Roman Catholic Church dominated much of European civilization, marriages were by and large private affairs with little to no civil intervention. They were arranged and recognized by the families of the common law partner and common-law wife. The unions were not even registered with government authorities in those days.
Today; however, each state answers what is common law marriage differently. A relative few common law marriage states exist in the entire country with many still outlawing common-law unions entirely. With that, if you are considering becoming a common law wife or husband, you should learn first the difference of common law vs civil law when it comes to marriage and what implications come with being in a common law marriage in the U.S.
Exploring Common Law Marriage Further
As noted, each state has different definitions for common law vs civil law when it comes to marriage in general. Some states even define common-law unions as the same thing as:
- civil unions
- conjugal unions
- domestic partnerships
- registered partnerships
- domestic registries
In fact, all of these types of unions, as well as traditional religious or civil marriage, differ from a common law marriage in several key ways.
Further, some states refuse to consider the question of what is common law marriage entirely and refuse to recognize such relationships. In fact, this type of marriage has never been allowed in these states:
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
Some states that refuse to recognize couples in this type of union still have laws that protect people in them. States with common law marriage protection laws on record include:
The only common law marriage states in the U.S. that will offer legal protections and rights to couples are:
- Washington D.C.
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
All 50 states will recognize a common law marriage that originated in a jurisdiction that permits this type of union. Likewise, all 50 states have laws on the book that restrict who can enter such relationships. These restrictions are similar to those implemented on civil or religious marriages and define the necessary age, mental capacity, and other criteria for getting married.
Despite some states recognizing this marital arrangement, no state has official divorce rules on the books for them. Each state permits a couple to separate and go their own ways without having to file a divorce case in court or awaiting a judge’s decision on whether the dissolution is granted or denied.
However, there may be times when a common-law partner needs to retain a lawyer who specializes in marriage, divorce, and family law. If you find yourself at a point where your own common law marriage is on the verge of ending, you can rebuild your life and secure your financial and legal future by hiring a lawyer who has experience with this unique type of relationship.
When to Retain Legal Counsel
Even if you reside in a state that does not recognize this type of marriage, you still may need to hire a lawyer to help you when the relationship ends. The most pressing reason to hire a lawyer immediately would be if you are the victim of domestic violence. If you have a spouse who is battering you or putting your physical safety at risk, you need a lawyer who can file for a Protection from Abuse order and help you and your children escape the violent relationship.
Likewise, if your children are the victims of abuse, you need legal help getting away and putting the necessary protections for them in place. If you fail to act in the best interest of your children, even if the state does not recognize your marriage, you could risk losing custody of them. A lawyer can help you file a case and get away from the abusing partner while you rebuild your life.
Otherwise, you may need an attorney with some experience with this type of household arrangement if you have changed your last name to present a unified front to society. A lawyer can help you file the necessary paperwork to change your name back to your maiden surname. This step is important in presenting yourself as a newly single individual.
A lawyer also can assist you in asking the court for spousal or child support. Even if the state does not recognize your marriage, it does recognize the importance for you and your children to be awarded adequate support and maintenance. Your attorney can help you secure the amount to which you and your children are entitled and also help you obtain other benefits like access to health or life insurance from the other partner.
Finally, you may want to claim property and money that you brought into the union. If you do not have a cohabitation agreement on file with the court, you could risk losing these funds and assets. A lawyer may be able to help you prove rightful ownership to them. You also may avoid having to take on debts that belong to your former partner.
Each state is left to its own devices when it comes to recognizing and defining common law marriage. When you want the full protection of the law regardless of whether you are in such a union or attempting to leave one, you may need to retain legal counsel to assist you. You can protect yourself, your children, and any assets or money that are rightfully yours by hiring an attorney who is well-versed in these types of marriages.
A common law marriage is a relationship that is not registered with civil or religious authorities but still allows the couple to be recognized as legally joined. Most states in the U.S. refuse to recognize these types of marriages. However, a few states not only recognize them but also have laws on the books protecting people in them.
Today’s common law marriage is more than likely the result of marriage arrangements in the past that were not and in fact, did not have to be registered with governmental authorities. Societies in bygone eras regarded marriage as a private affair and one that was used to bind families together rather than a civil contract.
It was only after the rise of the Roman Catholic Church and the precedence of canon law that marriages gained more importance in civil society and government. As a result, marriages that were not registered were frowned upon and not officially recognized by the state.
This refusal to accept such arrangements can still be witnessed in the U.S. today with close to 30 states having no laws on the books about such marriages. Only 13 will recognize these marriages as valid. Even then, couples must meet all of the criteria in order for their marriages to be recognized and accepted by the state.
These criteria include organizing their lives to mirror the lives of traditionally married couples. They must share a home, money, and even the same last name in many cases.
Despite the legal loopholes to have their marriages recognized by the state, no state has divorce requirements for couples in these unions. A couple can simply part and go their separate ways without so much as a court order. However, couples who share assets or custody of minor children are encouraged to retain legal counsel to split ownership of money and property and to decide who gets custody of the children.