What Is a Common-Law Marriage?

by Team eLocal
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One of the most important decisions a couple makes is whether to get married. While a legal marriage comes with certain benefits, some people opt for a common-law marriage.

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Find out what a common-law marriage is, and which states recognize these unions.

What Is a Common-Law Marriage?

Common-law marriage refers to a situation where a state considers a couple's union roughly equivalent to a legal marriage without a marriage ceremony or obtaining a marriage license. Therefore, common-law spouses can enjoy many of the legal benefits of marriage, such as asset inheritance and Social Security benefits.

There's a common myth that couples must live together for either 7 or 10 years before becoming common-law spouses. However, there's no official length of time you must cohabitate in any of the states that recognize common-law marriages. Although the rules can vary, all participating states require that the individuals:

  • Live together for a considerable (but unspecified) length of time
  • Can legally marry
  • Are both unmarried
  • File joint tax returns and share finances, including holding joint bank accounts
  • Behave to all intents and purposes as a married couple, such as referring to each other as husband or wife in public

Which States Recognize Common-Law Marriage?

Ten states and the District of Columbia recognize common-law marriages in limited circumstances:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Ohio and Pennsylvania no longer recognize new common-law marriages. However, they may consider your union a common-law marriage if your relationship met the state's requirements before a specific cut-off date.

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Is a Common-Law Marriage Legally the Same as a Formal Marriage?

Although common-law spouses are entitled to some benefits of a legal marriage, there are some significant differences. Generally, a legal marriage may entitle you to certain benefits if you divorce. Meanwhile, the benefits of a common-law marriage end if you and your partner decide to end your relationship. Therefore, you'll usually be entitled to complete ownership of any assets that belonged to you before entering your common-law marriage.

Common-law spouses can often split any assets purchased during the relationship and share responsibility for any joint debts. However, division of assets when these unions end can often become complicated if your partner says you aren't their common-law spouse, so it's wise to consult with an attorney before purchasing assets with your partner.

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