In most states, couples who wish to make their relationship official have to adhere to more traditional norms like saying their “I Dos”, walking down the aisle, and formally registering their marriage. But in some parts of the US, you can skip the costly wedding and marriage license application and go with a common law marriage instead.
Both of these arrangements offer some of the same benefits, but there are some notable differences. Keep reading to find out more about common law marriage, existing eligibility requirements, and the states where this type of union is legally accepted.
What Are Common Law Marriages?
By definition, a common law marriage is one in which couples live together (without any time requirements), intend to be married, and hold themselves out in public among friends and family as being married. In other words, they have an agreement to live as spouses without being required to actually get married in a religious or civil ceremony.
But what is a common law marriage good for when it comes to legal protections, and are there any rights and benefits afforded to the couple? The short answer is that common law marriages offer the same level of legal protection as traditional ones. However, these arrangements aren’t recognized nationwide. Also, not all states have the same requirements when it comes to common law marriages, and there are certain conditions couples have to meet to be considered married by common law.
If you’re considering this type of marriage and are trying to figure out if it’s the right choice for you, here are the requirements. We’ll also tell you what states recognize common law marriage and which ones offer limited recognition.
Couples who wish to be married by common law should:
- Live together in a state that recognizes this type of marriage
- Live together for an unspecified period of time as no state has actual requirements for this
- Intend to be married
- Not be married to someone else
- Be of legal age and sound mind
- Announce themselves to family, friends, coworkers as a married couple
Now, let’s take a closer look at the states that recognize these marriages.
- A common law marriage in Colorado requires spouses to be eighteen years or older and not be prohibited by any other laws.
- In Iowa, common law marriages grant couples the same benefits as traditional marriages, including child support and property division.
- In Kansas, couples who wish to be married by common law need to be of legal age, have the capacity to consent, and publicly declare themselves as married to the community.
- Montana is another state where common law marriages aren’t prohibited.
- New Hampshire isn’t like other common law marriage states, and it only recognizes this union to a limited extent. The statute refers to the union only as “cohabitation” and requires the couple to live together and acknowledge each other as husband and wife for at least three years. It’s also used for inheritance purposes. For example, if one partner dies, the survivor is treated as the spouse of the deceased.
- Oklahoma is one of the states in which common law marriages have been the subject of conflict between the courts and the state law. Those who live in Oklahoma and wish to be recognized as married by common law need to be eighteen or older, financially interdependent, and living together. And just like in other states, they cannot be relatives.
- When it comes to Rhode Island, those who opt for common law marriage need to live together and identify as being married to their friends and families.
- Next on our list is South Carolina that has very basic requirements. The parties must be 16 or older, not married to anyone else, and mentally competent.
- Texas has similar guidelines as other states. The partners must live together, agree to be married, and announce that to the community.
- The same goes for Utah. The parties in this informal union should consent to being married and let the people around them know that.
There are also some states in which only common law marriages by a specified date are recognized. Here’s what you should know if you live in one of the following states:
- Common law marriage in Georgia will be recognized if the couple entered into it before January 1, 1997. As the code on the common law marriages states, “No common-law marriage shall be entered into in this state on or after January 1, 1997.”
- Alabama prohibited common law marriages from January 1, 2017. Those unions that have been settled before this date remain valid.
- In Ohio, all common law marriages conducted before Oct. 10, 1991 are legal.
- When it comes to Idaho, common law marriages settled before Jan. 1, 1996 are lawful.
- A common law marriage in Pennsylvania, PA is valid if it was entered into prior to Jan. 1, 2005.
Financial and Legal Rights of Common Law Couples
We’ve already touched on the fact that benefits are extended to couples in both traditional and common law marriages. If you live in a state that recognizes this type of marriage and you meet all legal requirements, these are the benefits you can enjoy.
Social Security Benefits
Common law couples can receive each others’ Social Security benefits as long as they can prove they lived together and in line with the common law rules of their state.
Tax benefits don’t change when we’re talking about marriage vs common law marriage. Just like those in traditional marriages, common law couples can also enjoy tax deductions. If they own a home together, they can claim a deduction for mortgage interest.
Medical Power of Attorney
Common law couples can grant each other medical power of attorney. In case one of the partners is incapable of making medical decisions, the other can do it on their behalf, rather than some other family member.
If it’s mentioned in the will, common law spouses have the right to inherit their partner’s property in case of death. However, there might be some issues with a common law marriage if there is no will. In those cases, the children and other family members are entitled to an inheritance.
Divorce in Common Law Marriages
Did you know that the United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world? In 2019, the divorce rate was 2.7 persons for 1,000 people. And although it’s not a traditional marriage and doesn’t involve a marriage license, an informal marriage requires an actual divorce if the partners decide to break up. There’s no such thing as a common law divorce, so couples need to get a divorce like in any other traditional marriage.
States that have common law marriage requirements also require couples who no longer wish to be together to get a divorce. What’s also interesting is that even if you move to a state that doesn’t recognize informal marriages, you may still have to get a divorce. Although your state of residence does not validate your informal union, it is still valid under Article IV, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, which is why you need to annul it.
Now that you know the basics about common law marriage in the USA and understand the requirements and benefits it involves, you should be able to make a decision on whether it’s suitable for you. Make sure to check the regulations concerning common law marriages in your state and consult with an attorney to ensure all legal obligations have been met.