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Common Law Marriage Myths

Updated on May 26, 2016
Commonlaw marriages do not require legal sanctioning or formal ceremonies.
Commonlaw marriages do not require legal sanctioning or formal ceremonies. | Source

Test Your Knowledge about Common Law Marriage

The first time I came across the concept of common law marriage was in the Internal Revenue Service's instructions for completing tax returns. I was cohabitating at the time, and wasn't sure whether my state, Arizona, was a commonlaw state that would have allowed us to file as married for tax purposes. Since then, I have lived in states where commonlaw marriages are officially recognized and states that don't acknowledge them as having any valid legal standing.

At one point, I was told (mistakenly) that I was "married by common law" to a man with whom I lived. Turns out quite a few people think they understand what is meant by the phrase, but have some mistaken beliefs. Check out whether your knowledge is accurate!

California and Common Law Recognition

Myth: Commonlaw Marriages are Legal in Every State

Every state will recognize a common law marriage sanctioned by another state because the United States Constitution has a "Full Faith and Credit" clause that directs states to honor the status of other states' requirements.

However, only ten states plus Washington, D.C. actually confer the legal status of marriage upon couples who haven't been wed through a religious or judicial authority. (A tenth state, New Hampshire, acknowledges common law marriage only for the purpose of inheritance, in which case the status is granted posthumously.)

In the last fifteen years, four states have stopped recognizing common law as a basis for marriage. Georgia, Idaho, Ohio and Pennsylvania formerly allowed common law marriages but have repealed them on the basis that they promote immoral values. These states still recognize couples who were granted commonlaw marriage status prior to the repeal of their respective laws.

States that Confer Married Status Based on Common Law

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A markerAlabama -
Alabama, USA
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B markerKansas -
Kansas, USA
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C markerColorado -
Colorado, USA
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D markerIowa -
Iowa, USA
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E markerMontana -
Montana, USA
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F markerOklahoma -
Oklahoma, USA
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G markerSouth Carolina -
South Carolina, USA
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H markerRhode Island -
Rhode Island, USA
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I markerNew Hampshire -
New Hampshire, USA
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J markerTexas -
Texas, USA
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Myth: A Cohabiting Couple Could Discover their State Considers them Married

In common law marriages, the couple will not be considered married simply because they lived together, although nearly all commonlaw states require a period of cohabitation in order to qualify as married. Most of them don't specify just how long a couple has to live together. (Many people erroneously believe the cohabitation period requirement is seven years, which was valid for Pennsylvanians when the state still recognized common law as a basis for marriage.)

However, cohabitation is just one of the elements that must be in place before a state will acknowledge a couple as being married despite their lack of official sanctions saying it's so. In general, they must also meet other qualifications:

  • They must intend to be married.
  • They must be an adult, or a minor with parental permission (as defined by state law.)
  • They must be agreeable to the marriage or have an intention to be married.
  • They must "hold forth" as a married couple - shown by filing taxes jointly, telling people they're husband and wife, name changes, purchasing property together, and conducting their personal affairs as a married couple in such a way that others believe they're married.

Some states have other requirements, as shown in the article Do Common Law Marriages Require Divorce Proceedings When They End?

Common Law Marriages Don't Require Divorces

This is partially true and partially false. A couple that qualifies as having a commonlaw marriage is entitled to the same rights as a couple married by the clergy or a justice of the peace. This may mean they can access health insurance benefits, be eligible for their partner's retirement program, and be privy to financial details that wouldn't be legally available to a cohabiting couple.

When a couple splits, if they have not merged any of their finances, do not have children or property together, and aren't receiving any benefits as a result of their relationship, it may be possible to simply walk away without doing more than telling friends and family that they've split. However, this isn't always a wise decision, because they can be held accountable for each other's debts in certain circumstances.

If they seek a court's assistance in splitting up property, or believe they're entitled to ongoing benefits like family support, a person who has been in a common law relationship can and should hire an attorney and file for a legal divorce in order to protect their rights.

States where commonlaw marriages are established, as well as states where a couple may have moved later, will continue to treat the marriage as a legal and valid entity until a divorce is filed. If a couple doesn't seek a legal divorce, and one party later remarries, the ex-commonlaw-spouse could potentially claim that bigamy is taking place!

What's Your Opinion?

Common law marriages should be allowed:

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Comments

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  • Perspycacious profile image

    Demas W Jasper 21 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

    Good insights, good comments. Fine subject at a time when marriage and the family are under stress.

  • Glenn Stok profile image

    Glenn Stok 22 months ago from Long Island, NY

    These things are very interesting. And your hub is "must reading" for anyone considering living together.

    A friend of mine has an adult son who was living with a woman who stole from him. So he tried to break up and get her out of the house, only to discover that she used the legal protection of common law marriage. He can't even kick her out and change the locks without legally evicting her.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 3 years ago from USA

    Hi Michele, and thanks for visiting! I am not an attorney or a financial adviser so I would encourage you to check with an estate attorney to plan your finances, especially since NC is not a common law marriage state. I believe it would probably be beneficial to you to consult an attorney on whether a prenuptial agreement might help the two of you plan things just the way you want.

  • profile image

    michele 3 years ago

    I live in NC my boyfriend he and I have been together for almost 5 years living together we have bought two homes together we want to say vows in a church but do not want court papers would I be able to draw off of his social security and would NC see us as married or if we went to SC would we have to live there?

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    You're welcome. If you know someone who has been denied Social Security, I hope the information will help them get what they are owed.

  • Gail Anthony profile image

    Gail Anthony 4 years ago

    Thanks for the clarification and the cites, Jellygator.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Oops! Thanks for the correction Gail. I missed putting Texas on the map here! (It is mentioned on my related hub about CLM requiring divorce when they end.)

    Common law couples may obtain Social Security benefits, however. The Social Security Handbook, section 1717, reveals the process in these direct quotes:

    1717.1 How do you prove a common-law marriage?

    Evidence to prove a common-law marriage in the States that recognize such marriages must include:

    If the husband and wife are living, a statement from each and a statement from a blood relative of each;

    If either the husband or wife is dead, a statement from the surviving widow or widower and statements from two blood relatives of the decedent; or

    If both a husband and wife are dead, a statement from a blood relative of the husband and from a blood relative of the wife.

    1717.2 How should the statements be made?

    The statements of the husband, wife, and relatives must be made on special forms, Statement Regarding Marriage or Statement of Marital Relationship, available at any Social Security office or on the Social Security Administration's website. You must fully answer all items on the forms and in your own words. Also, submit evidence that confirms that you had a common-law marriage, such as mortgage/rent receipts, bank records, insurance policies, etc.

    1717.3 What if you cannot get statements from your relatives?

    If you adequately explain why you cannot obtain the required statements from relatives, you may submit statements from other persons who know the facts. Provide any other investigative evidence relating to your case.

  • Gail Anthony profile image

    Gail Anthony 4 years ago

    Jellygator, You left one state off your list. Texas is a common law state and the couple does not need to have any plans to get married but they do need to meet the last requirement that you listed. You wrote an excellent Hub but I wish you had included that couples married under common law will not be able to have Social Security benefits like people with civil or religious marriages simply because they do not have a marriage certificate. Again, super job on your hub.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Thanks, AliciaC! Your comment has me wondering now, too. I saw references to common law marriages in England, but nothing in reference to Canada or other countries.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    This hub contains some interesting information, jellygator! You've made me curious about the common law marriage rules in my area. Congratulations on Hub of the Day.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    I've never had so many comments on a hub! It's exciting and you guys have all made my day extra special. Thank you so much!

    Rebecca, that is funny, isn't it? Georgia actually did recognize common law marriages at one time, but it's one of the four states that stopped conferring CLM status in the last decade and a half. As with any CLM, it's necessary to get a divorce if you want to separate assets and such. (I talk about this in more depth on another hub.)

  • rebeccamealey profile image

    Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

    Hey! I had a common law marriage in Georgia that I got a divorce from. Turns out, the state doesn't recognize CLM. But I have divorce papers. How funny is that! Congrats on your honor, BTW!

  • jpcmc profile image

    JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

    This is a really good hub. This will help dispel erroneous information that many have on common law marriages.

  • profile image

    Starmom41 4 years ago

    @jellygator: that's interesting, thanks for the info!

    and this is a great hub!

  • dobo700 profile image

    dobo700 4 years ago from Australia

    Congratulations hub of the day

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Congratulations! Worthy of HOD! I'm always on the alert for HODs that are actually interesting. So many of them are simply How Tos.

    Look forward to more of your writing.

  • raciniwa profile image

    raciniwa 4 years ago from Naga City, Cebu

    Congratulations for being chosen as hub of the day...i wouldn't have taken notice if it is not about marriage...i find this very interesting...the Bible: "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.'

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    LOL... true, but then that could be said of most laws! Thanks for stopping by, CG.

  • profile image

    calculus-geometry 4 years ago

    Things would be so much simpler if marriage and divorce laws were the same in every state.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Again, thank you to everyone who read and commented.

    That's an accurate distinction, TRUTH, that I tried to address by saying that every state recognizes other states' laws as validly establishing a marriage despite lack of a ceremony due to the Constitution. Thank you for clarifying it further.

    Starmom41, common law marriage practices in the U.S. came about mostly because during the country's formative years, it was impractical for many people to have a religious or legal ceremony. Many people lived many miles from the nearest town and transportation was limited, so common law marriages provided a way for a couple to be married and have the benefits that marriage confers without being burdened with the extra time and expense it would have taken them to spend several days or more getting to town to get married.

  • A Little TRUTH profile image

    A Little TRUTH 4 years ago

    Congratulations! Not on making hub of the day, but in getting a hub with some substance in it, into hub of the day. So many of them seem to have the relevance of how to decorate cupcakes.

    Technically, you are right in saying that common law marriage is not LEGAL in every state, because you’ve been careful to use the word “legal” and not “lawful”. However, common law marriage is LAWFUL in EVERY State, since the Constitution says “No State shall ... make any Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts” – Article I, section 10, clause 1. Marriage is a contract. No State can interfere.

    If two people agree that they are married, they are lawfully married – although not necessarily legally.

  • Icematikx profile image

    Icematikx 4 years ago from United Kingdom, Staffordshire

    Very nice hub. Very interesting read :)

  • profile image

    Starmom41 4 years ago

    A question I've always wondered on this topic is: what is the purpose of it?

  • NarcononVistaBay profile image

    NarcononVistaBay 4 years ago from California

    Interesting hub. I didn't know much about this topic. Although I'm in favor of marriage, I don't think living together without being married shouldn't be respected as well.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Thanks, Suzette!

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Quite interesting.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Thank you, Lizzy! As I was doing my research, I discovered that one of the most common searches involving "common law marriage" were for California, so you're not alone in being surprised by that, I bet!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Congratulations on HOTD! What a well-researched piece!

    I knew that it wasn't a recognized relationship in some states, but was shocked to learn that my own state of California, usually know for its liberal views, was not among them!

    I had also thought that the 'live together long enough to qualify' term was actually 14 years, not 7. (Luckily, hubby & I are legally married! LOL)

    Cool! I've learned some new things today! Voted up, interesting and useful.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    I think the base idea (which I also disagree with) is that cohabitation itself is an immoral idea, a concept that comes from some religious beliefs. Although we have a separation of church and state principle in our country, religious beliefs still can have a lot of influence in our lawmaking. Thank you for reading and commenting, Relationshipc.

  • Relationshipc profile image

    Kari 4 years ago from Alberta, Canada

    I have my own issues with people (including government) who think that living together produces immoral values. I think that's a bit ridiculous, but then again a lot this world thinks ridiculous i.e. how it's also illegal to fish off the back of an elephant in Idaho (like Denise said).

    I think commitment is commitment - bottom line.

    Very interesting hub and congrats on the hub of the day!

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Thank you, NightMagic and Robert. I appreciate you reading and commenting.

  • Robert Erich profile image

    Robert Erich 4 years ago from California

    This is a fascinating article. I have heard a bit about common law marriage and wondered about it - as you did. It's great to learn about it! Congrats on getting hub of the day and keep up the good work!

  • profile image

    NightMagic 4 years ago

    Good info. There was quite a few things I didn't know.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    Wow, a huge thank you to everyone for commenting and to HP for selecting this! What a great welcome as I sit down at the computer!

    Pamela, that's interesting to consider how Native Americans's customs have influenced your state's laws.

    Moonlake, sorry to hear about your experience. As healthylife2 said, they'd have had to tell the doctor they were married in order for him to talk to her. The doctor was doing the right thing, even if she didn't like it and blamed you.

  • ThussaysNanaMarie profile image

    ThussaysNanaMarie 4 years ago from In my oyster

    interesting

  • mvillecat profile image

    Catherine Dean 4 years ago from Milledgeville, Georgia

    Congrats on being chosen Hub of the day! Much needed tax information provided as well as state by state comparison. Great job.

  • healthylife2 profile image

    Healthy Life 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

    During my brief career as a divorce attorney I found many people assumed they had a common law marriage and were totally unaware of the fact that they had to also have the requisite intent to be married and hold themselves out as a married couple. You did a great job clarifying and congrats on getting hub of the day!

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

    Well done! It's a superb Hub and important information/debate all through - a cood contemporary look at relationships and the legal aspects. Congratualtions!!! I liked the poll and pleased with results so far - how exciting we can see how people feel and what we think.

  • Celiegirl profile image

    Celiegirl 4 years ago

    Thanks i have always wanted added info on commonlaw unions.

  • Happyboomernurse profile image

    Gail Sobotkin 4 years ago from South Carolina

    Congrats on earning Hub of the Day. This is indeed a confusing topic and you've done a great job of debunking some of the myths.

    Still, the laws themselves are sometimes "clear as mud."

    Voted up, useful and interesting.

  • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

    Sarah Johnson 4 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

    Awesome hub on an interesting topic. In my area, CLM has a very negative connotation, as it is usually only brought up in a dispute over a death or split up. I wonder if that is true in other states?

    Congratulations on Hub of the Day!

  • Pamela N Red profile image

    Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma

    I live in Oklahoma which is Indian Territory and mostly why we recognize common law marriage. In many tribes the woman simply take a man into her home announces he is her husband and it is done.

    My husband and I were common law married for a year and a half before having a church wedding. Back then you just had to live together, share expenses and money and tell people you are married, not sure if they changed the stipulations.

    I have read statistics that if you live together first and then marry those unions seldom last, I know many that have lasted decades so not sure where they get those stats.

  • profile image

    ignugent17 4 years ago

    Congratulations hub of the day!

  • tammyswallow profile image

    Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

    This is a great hub and a great topic of discussion. I was excited to see you got HOTD! Congratulations on your well deserved award!!!

  • cclitgirl profile image

    Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

    Very informative - I learned a lot. I failed that quiz, so it's good to read up on this stuff. I'll pass this on to friends and family who could benefit from this information. Well done - congrats on hub of the day!

  • moonlake profile image

    moonlake 4 years ago from America

    I didn't take the quiz I knew I would fail. This happened many years ago. My brother-in-law lived with a girl. He got into a terrible accident. The doctor would not even speak to her he would only talk to us. We ended up being responsible for him and for his three kids. We really didn't know her. The doctors had told us he wasn't going to get better and may end up in a home. He did get better but it took months for this to happen..

    He married the girl later on and they ended up with their own child..

    What happened way back when caused hard feelings and she never liked us from that time on. We had no choice we had three young kids that had to be taken care of. Their mother wasn't in the picture. At that time she wanted nothing to do with the kids she just wanted to stay at the hospital with him.

    It can end up being a sticky mess.

    Congrats on your HOTD. Enjoyed reading. Voted Up

  • Natashalh profile image

    Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

    Congradulations on your hub of the day!! I've heard all of hear myths, and many people firmly believe them to be true. Great job debunking them!

  • MarcusJ profile image

    Marcus J. Guidry 4 years ago from Bayou Country, Louisiana

    I thought I would have fared better on the quiz but it was enlightening. I live in Louisiana and there is no common law marriage here. I believe if people want to live together without the strain of marriage they should be allowed to do so without the state interfering.

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 5 years ago from USA

    Well, thank you!

  • kenneth avery profile image

    Kenneth Avery 5 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

    jellygator . . .wow. You are most-welcome. I only told you the truth. You, my friend, ARE a talented writer. Never let anyone tell you different.

    Kenneth

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 5 years ago from USA

    Thanks so much, Kenneth! I'm blushing!

  • kenneth avery profile image

    Kenneth Avery 5 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

    Hello, jellygator . . .GREAT hub. Very informative and helpful. Voted up and all the way. I admire your style of writing. Very professional. Keep up the great work.

    Your Southern Friend,

    Kenneth

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 5 years ago from USA

    I had a couple of mistaken ideas, too. I thought common law was still honored in Missouri, for instance, but learned it is not. Thanks for reading and commenting, Chrissie!

  • chrissieklinger profile image

    chrissieklinger 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

    Such an interesting article. I did not do well on the quiz and my state, PA, I thought conferred married status based on common law. Amazing how misinformation spreads!

  • jellygator profile image
    Author

    jellygator 5 years ago from USA

    My personal opinion is the same as yours, Denise! Thank you for reading and commenting. Well, as long as you're not on the back of an elephant while fishing, you depraved woman, you! (Who really comes up with such laws?!?!)

  • denisemai profile image

    Denise Mai 5 years ago from Idaho

    This is a really good hub. I see my home state of Idaho has repealed the law based on morality but, if it makes you feel any better, it's also illegal to fish off the back of an elephant in Idaho. (Kid's iPhone app LOL) I'm for common law marriage if it's the couple's intent but I'm against the forcing of a marriage on people who are just living together. Good writing. I enjoyed reading this!

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