Does California Recognize Common Law Marriage?

Learn whether you may have a valid common law marriage in California and whether unmarried couples have any of the same legal rights as married couples.

By , Attorney

There's a popular misconception that if you live with your partner for a long time (like seven years), you'll have a "common law marriage," with the same rights and responsibilities of legally married couples. But in most states, including California, this isn't true.

In just a handful of states that recognize common law marriage, couples may be considered legally married even though they never got a marriage license or had a wedding ceremony, as long as they both intend to live as a married couple and take specific actions backing up that intention—including living together and holding themselves out to the community as spouses. California isn't one of those states. But there's one exception to the nonrecognition of common law marriages in the Golden State.

California Recognizes Common Law Marriages From Other States

In order to be legally married in California, couples must generally get a marriage license and exchange vows in a ceremony. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 300, 350, 420 (2022).)

However, under the "full faith and credit" clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, states should recognize marriage laws from other states. So if you established a valid common law marriage in a state that legally recognizes this type of informal marriage (or did at the time you established your marriage relationship), and you later moved to California, you may still be considered legally married in your new state.

"Palimony" Claims in California

Generally speaking, unmarried couples don't have the same community property rights that married couples have in California. But when they break up, some unmarried couples might be entitled to claim certain property rights and financial support—often called "palimony" or "Marvin" claims.

In the well-known Marvin case (Marvin v. Marvin, 557 P.2d 106 (Cal. Sup. Ct., 1976)), actress Michelle Triola Marvin sued actor Lee Marvin for financial compensation similar to what's available under California community property laws. Even though they had never married, she wanted financial support and one-half of the $3.6 million Lee earned during their six years together. The California Supreme Court held that Michelle could file suit against Lee based on their long-time, live-in relationship. Ultimately, Michelle lost her financial claim because she couldn't prove they had an implied contract (agreement) to share property or for Lee to pay support. Still, her case paved the way for future "Marvin" lawsuits.

Generally, in order to succeed in a Marvin suit, you'll have to prove that you and your partner had a written agreement or implied understanding to share your property and earnings and/or that one person would provide financial support to the other. Below are the two most common ways to prove this.

Action for Breach of Written Contract

If a couple has a valid, written agreement to share property or provide support, that contract should control the outcome of their case. The next step would be for the couple to figure out specific items and amounts for property division and support. If they can't agree on the numbers, they can hire attorneys or financial experts to do this. And if there are problems with the contract, or if either person contests it, then a judge may decide these issues in court.

Action for Implied Contract

It's much harder to prove that a couple had a valid agreement when it was implied rather than spelled out in a written, signed document. A judge will have to examine the couple's conduct. Did they act in a way that proves they agreed to share their earnings and property? Did one partner support the other throughout the relationship and promise that the financial support was going to continue after they broke up, or even after the partner providing support passed away?

Judges will consider a variety of evidence, including:

  • Reasons for not getting married: Did one partner avoid marriage in order so that community property rights wouldn't apply in their relationship?
  • Banking practices: Did they have joint or separate checking and savings accounts?
  • Credit practices: Did they use joint credit cards? Who paid off the cards? Did they apply for loans jointly or individually?
  • Buying property: Did they pool their money together to purchase property? When they bought property, did they take title together or separately?

Judges will also look to see whether the couple had a stable, marriage-like relationship that included living together (at least part-time) and acting as mutual companions.

One way to avoid a Marvin lawsuit is to enter into a "Living Together Agreement" (similar to a prenuptial contract) that dictates what will happen to the property you acquire during your relationship and whether either partner can request financial support in the event of a split.

Do Unmarried Parents Have to Pay Child Support?

Yes. In California, as in all states, parents have a legal duty to support their children, regardless of whether they are (or ever were) married to each other. The right to support belongs to the child, not the parents.

Either parent may file a motion for child support. But the easiest way to request support is to apply with the California Child Support Services agency. The agency can help in a number of ways, including:

Learn more about child support in California, including how the amount is calculated under the state's child-support guidelines.

Do Unmarried Parents Have Custody Rights?

Unmarried parents also have the same custody rights and obligations as married parents, as long as there is no question about their parentage. Under California's child custody laws, judges will make decisions about legal and physical custody based on what's in the children's best interests.

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