Does Common-Law Marriage Still Exist?

By Marissa A. Oxman, Esq.

A common-law marriage is an informal marriage.  A couple never has a civil or religious ceremony.  They never register their marriage with the state.  But they live together, act like they are married, and tell most everyone they are married.

Most states in the U.S. have stop recognizing common law marriages.  Today, fewer than 10 states still have them.  California does not recognize common-law marriage.  So, no matter how long a couple lives together in California or whether they act married, California usually will not consider the couple married without the formal state registration.  The one exception to this rule is triggered when one person believes he or she is married and the other is (1) aware no marriage exists and (2) aware of the misconception.  In that particular circumstance, California law will provide some marital protections to the ignorant spouse (called the ‘innocent spouse’).

The lack of common-law marriage in California can make things complicated when a relationship ends.  The number of couples living together before marriage, and the number of couples living together without ever getting married is on the rise too.  These couple often have joint bank accounts, by property together, and generally share living expenses.  But, since they are not formally married, California Family Court isn’t going to treat them as married if their relationship ends.  Couples who are not married can try to use the Civil Court to divide their property and even to try and get some alimony by arguing they had a contract (called a Marvin claim for palimony), but since most couples don’t reduce their relationship agreements to writing, even the Civil Court can be challenging.

Written agreements for people sharing finances can help avoid some of these issues.  These agreements can clearly outline who owns what, who pays for what, and what each person might be entitled to if they stop sharing finances.  California Family Court is not likely to award one-person spousal support if he or she was never married to the person he or she lived with.  So, where two people are living together and one is not earning income, an agreement can help both Parties plan for their financial futures.   If two people are considering buying a house, their agreement should clearly outline whose name will be on the house, on the mortgage, how mortgage payments should be made, and what will happen if one person leaves the home (moves out, stops paying, or dies).  Clear agreements can help avoid fights in the future.

This blog is not meant to provide legal advice, and the law may have changed after it was written. Every person and every case is different. You should speak with an attorney about your specific circumstances. Core Law Groups can help you develop a game plan that works for your specific circumstances.  Schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys