As couples living together before having a marriage ceremony becomes more commonplace, the concept of common law marriage is also being discussed more often.

However, many people do not truly understand what common law relationships mean to the parties in them and what legal rights they actually confer. Here’s the low down on how and where you could be considered married without ever having a wedding.

common law marriage versus domestic marriage graphic

How do you become common law married?

Many people think as long as there are couples living together, they are in a valid common law marriage. In reality, the legal definition of common law marriage is a little more complex than that. Couples still need to meet certain requirements established under state law.


To enter a common law partnership, you have to be living in a state that allows common law marriage. In the United States, there are only seven states and the District of Columbia that do. Other states have grandfathered in some common law marriages and the US Military recognizes is for some purposes.


Second, you must be living together for an extended amount of time. This is sometimes defined by state law as holding yourselves out to be married by using each other’s names, introducing the other as a common law wife or husband, and other public acts. You can think of this requirement in lieu of an official, state-recognized wedding ceremony.

The common law definition of marriage should not be confused with other legal relationships that were used before same sex marriage was legal across the United States. Domestic partnership vs marriage is an entirely different issue. Domestic partnerships and civil unions were established by state law to confer state marriage rights on certain couples, but they still often required the state’s involvement in the process. In contrast, common law marriage can help establish federal marriage rights without having the state involved at all.

What states recognize common law marriages?

The states that recognize common law marriage are Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia. In these states, when common law spouses meet state requirements, they will be considered legally married.

Federal Benefits of a Common Law Marriage

  • The ability to receive social security benefits on their spouse’s record (if they can show they resided together for the required number of years in that common law state)
  • Exemptions from federal taxes, like the gift tax and unlimited marital exceptions for their estate, up to the federal limit
  • The ability to claim deductions on mortgage interest and for children
  • Employer benefits through their common law spouse

Because common law partners are considered legally married, they do need to go through a divorce process if the relationship ends. This procedure is usually a little easier than a normal divorce, however, should still be carefully considered before a couple decides to hold themselves out as common law married.

Finally, their marriage should be recognized when the spouses go to another state that does not allow for common law marriage. However, to truly understand their rights and whether they will need to take any additional steps in a new state, common law couples who travel or do business in multiple should consult with an attorney to make sure they understand all legal rights and obligations.

November 1, 2019 | Categories: Legal Tips |