There are two kinds of marriage in America: ceremonial marriage and common law marriage. Ceremonial marriage is what you get when you obtain a marriage license and you have a traditional wedding. Common law marriage is what you have when you live and act as if you’re a married couple, but you don’t have a marriage license or a wedding.
Most American states don’t recognize common law marriage, but for many years Alabama was in the minority of states that did. However, there’s been a major change in the legal landscape. Effective January 1, 2017, Alabama no longer allows new common law marriages, although it will continue to recognize common law marriages that began before January 1, 2017.
If you're involved in a common law marriage that began sometime before January 1, 2017, Alabama law will continue to treat you as a married person. But any purported marriage after that date has to meet regular Alabama marriage laws, including the requirements to get a marriage license and to have the marriage solemnized by a religious or civil officiant who has legal authority to perform weddings.
Before January 1, 2017, spouses could prove the existence of a common law marriage by showing all of the following:
Common law marriages that began before January 1, 2017 are legally valid and will be recognized by Alabama's court system. Couples in a common law marriage have most or all of the same legal rights and responsibilities as couples who have ceremonial marriages. This means that a genuine common law marriage only ends when the spouses die or divorce. If the relationship breaks down and can’t be saved, and the spouses want to end their marriage, they will have to get a divorce just like everyone else. The good news is that common law spouses still enjoy the full benefit of Alabama’s family court laws and rules, and they have all the same rights and responsibilities around the division of property, alimony, custody, and visitation as any other married couple.
Sometimes people think that common law marriages spontaneously happen because they’re cohabiting (living together) or because they have children together. But that isn’t the case. Having children together or cohabiting is only one dimension among many in proving that you have a common law marriage.
Similarly, if two people are just friends, they don’t have a common law marriage. Marriages are based on intimate romantic and sexual feelings that are absent from friendships. People who are just friends really can’t benefit from Alabama’s marriage and family laws.
Alabama’s lawmakers eliminated common law marriage effective January 1, 2017. This means that no new common law marriages can be established after that date. To have a valid Alabama marriage after that date, the following rules apply:
Common law marriages that already existed before January 1, 2017 will still be treated as valid marriages. This means that if you’re in a relationship that began before that date and it meets all the other legal requirements for the formation of a common law marriage, Alabama’s courts will treat your relationship as a marriage even if you never got a marriage license or had a wedding ceremony.
People who are in serious relationships that fall short of being common marriages aren’t without legal recourse. If they have children together, both parents have the right to ask a court to make decisions about the child’s paternity, custody, visitation, health insurance, and child support. If two partners have other sorts of legal problems, they may find resolution in Alabama’s tort or contract laws. Finally, if either partner in a relationship is victimized by domestic violence or abuse, a court can issue an restraining order to help protect the victim.
If you have questions about common law marriage in Alabama, please contact an experienced family law attorney for advice.