Common Law Marriage in Iowa

Many long-term, unmarried couples often assume they've established a common law marriage. Find out if you meet the legal requirements.

By , J.D. · University of Minnesota School of Law

There are two types of marriage in Iowa. The first is ceremonial marriage, which is the traditional path that most people take when they obtain a marriage license—dressing up in suits and gowns, and hiring a minister or a judge to officiate a formal ceremony. The second is common law marriage, which is a type of legal marriage that you can enter into without having a wedding ceremony or getting a marriage license.

Only a handful of American states allow common law marriage and Iowa is one of them.

How do I establish a common law marriage in Iowa?

Sometimes partners who've been together for a long time wonder if they're "automatically" common law spouses. The answer is no. Even if you're in a long-term, committed relationship, it's not possible to stumble into a common law marriage—merely living together or even having children together isn't enough. You will have to go to court and ask a judge to determine that your marriage is valid.

You don't have to sign anything to become common law spouses, but if you want to prove to a court that you're in a common law marriage, you have to demonstrate the following.

You and your partner agree that you're married. This means that even though there was no wedding ceremony or marriage license, both of you fully agree and understand that your relationship is marital.

You and your spouse live together, without interruption, and your relationship is marital in nature. In other words, you must have a romantic and sexual relationship and you must live together most of the time and without interruption or a separation. There's no specific time requirement for how often or how long couples have to live together, but as a rule of thumb, you should live together the majority of the time rather than just periodically.

You and your spouse must hold yourselves out as married. You must both show the public that you're married to each other by behaving in the manner that would be expected of any married couple. For example, common law spouses can

  • designate each other as beneficiaries on insurance policies
  • give each other wedding bands and wear them publicly
  • file tax returns jointly
  • share a surname
  • refer to each other as "husband," "wife," or "spouse" when talking with other people, and
  • commingle assets and debts by sharing banking and other financial accounts.

Basic marriage laws apply to both ceremonial and common law marriages in Iowa. For example, under both traditional and common law marriage, the spouses must be old enough to get married, can't be too closely related to each other, and can't already be married to someone else.

What is not a common law marriage?

Regardless of what else you might say or do, if you and your partner talk about getting married in the future, or if either of you are unsure whether you want to get married, there's no possibility you're in a common law marriage. You both have to intend to be married before the law will view you as common law spouses. If your relationship is based on friendship, you don't have a common law marriage. You can't be married unless you intend to have the kind of close, romantic relationship that's embodied in marriage.

Intent can sometimes be tricky to establish, which means that it can be hard to get a court to rule that you have a common law marriage. In a recent case, the Iowa Court of Appeals considered a 20-year relationship that was never formalized with a ceremonial marriage. When the relationship ended, the wife filed for divorce in family court and asked for alimony. The husband characterized the relationship as non-marital and argued that the wife didn't have grounds to file for divorce. The spouses didn't always live together because the husband was sometimes in prison and he also traveled extensively for his job. For that reason, the court's decision revolved around the question of whether the parties intended to be married. The wife clearly intended for the relationship to be marital, but the husband claimed that he didn't share this view. The court determined that even though the husband denied an intent to be married, his behavior reflected the opposite, because he didn't correct the wife when she introduced him to others as her husband, and because he signed certain legal documents in the capacity of her husband.

If a judge denies your request to have your relationship recognized as a common law marriage, you may still be able to pursue certain rights that spouses enjoy. For example, if you and your partner have children together, you can go to court and ask a judge to make decisions about paternity, custody, health insurance, child support, and visitation. If you disagree about property division and financial support, you may pursue contract and/or tort claims in civil court. And if you're the victim of domestic violence, you can ask a court to protect you regardless of your marital status.

What is the legal effect of common law marriage?

Common law marriage is no different than ceremonial marriage. If you're in a common law marriage, you can't just walk away when you want your relationship to end—you'll have to file for divorce.

The flip side of the coin is that you will have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else who goes through a divorce. It doesn't matter if your marriage is ceremonial or based on common law—the family courts will divide up your assets and liabilities and make decisions about custody and visitation as prescribed by Iowa's marriage laws.

Some states don't recognize common law marriage. If you're planning to move away from Iowa, or if you have any other questions about your situation, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for advice.

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