Common Law Marriage: Are You In One? Can You Get One? What Is It?

Just about everybody has heard the term "common law marriage." But not everybody really understands what the term means. There are a lot of misconceptions swirling around this term. On the surface it looks easy to understand but when it comes to genuinely understanding the legalities and practical nature of a common law marriage, things get a little bit more complicated.

Most of the time, when people think the words "common law marriage" the image that comes to mind is that of a domestic partnership. The two are not the same. The differences might be subtle but they are there and they are important. Simply living with a significant other does not mean that you have entered into a common law marriage. Even if you live with your significant other for a long time, you are not necessarily in a common law marriage.

Here is what makes a common law marriage:

  • Both people in the relationship need to be old enough to be married legally without the consent of a parent or guardian. This one is pretty obvious.
  • Common law marriages aren't typically entered into formally via a ceremony or in front of witnesses.
  • Both people in the relationship need to acknowledge that the partnership is a marriage.
  • Neither of the people in the relationship can be currently married or in a domestic partnership or common law marriage with someone else.
  • Most of the time, both of the people in the relationship will have had to carried themselves publicly as a married person. This means that they have referred to their significant other as a husband or a wife, told people in the community that they are married—all of the things you would do if you had simply gotten married (the regular way).
  • The only thing that can dissolve a legal common law marriage is a divorce.

Unlike a domestic partnership-like situation, a common law marriage can be held legally binding should one person in the relationship want to bring suit against the other. This is much trickier in a domestic partnership situation.

A lot of couples, particularly when they are in the planning phases of a marriage or while planning a wedding will toy with the idea of having a common-law marriage instead of a formal marriage. This is often because of the stress of the planning involved in joining two lives together. Other times, a couple will have been together and lived together for so long that they think they don't need to formalize their relationship legally because they think they are already in a common-law marriage.

This is where it can get tricky. Not all states recognize a common-law marriage. If you are living in a state that does not recognize common-law marriage (Oregon, for example), you are in a domestic partnership and subject to all of the limitations that come with it until you enter into a legal marriage agreement.

The best thing to do if you have questions about common-law marriages and whether or not it is right for you (or if you are wondering whether or not you are in one) is talk to a family law expert. Your lawyer or expert will be well versed in the local statutes and be able to help you figure out where you are at and where you should go from here.

Most importantly, if you are someone who is worried that he or she might have inadvertently stumbled into a common-law marriage-like commitment—try not to panic. It takes more than simply spending lots of time together (or even living together for a long time) to be married according to common law!