Common Law Marriage in Utah

If you and your partner have been in a serious relationship for a long time, you may be wondering whether you’ve established a common law marriage.

If you and your partner have been in a serious relationship for a longtime, you may be wondering whether you're entitled to any of the legal rights spouses enjoy. In some states, unmarried couples can gain marital rights through a "common-law" marriage. Although the state of Utah doesn't recognize common-law marriage, there is an alternative available to unmarried couples who want their relationship recognized.

What's the Difference Between Traditional Marriage and Utah's Alternative?

Couples that want a traditional marriage must apply for a license and complete a wedding ceremony, which may be officiated by a judge, preacher, or other qualified person. After the ceremony, the spouses will receive a marriage certificate to keep for their records. Once the couple takes these steps, they are legally married and entitled to marital benefits from the state and federal government, including marital tax deductions, Social Security spousal benefits, inheritance rights, and the right to apply for immigration status for a foreign-born spouse.

In Utah, couples who have lived together and treated each other as spouses can ask the court to recognize their past relationship as a marriage. To do this, a couple needs to file a formal, written request—called a "petition to recognize a relationship as a marriage"—at the local court. This petition must be filed either during the relationship or within one year after it ends. If a judge grants the request, the couple will be legally married. Unlike traditional marriage, which becomes legal as of the date of the ceremony, a couple petitioning the court to recognize a past marital relationship will have their marriage backdated to the time their relationship began.

Before completing all the steps required to prepare and file a petition to recognize a relationship as a marriage, couples should understand that this process has the same effect as getting married. Unless the couple (or one of the partners) must have the past relationship recognized as a legal marriage for a specific purpose, such as divorce, inheritance, or spousal support, it may be cheaper and faster to simply get married.

How Do I Establish My Marriage?

Either partner can ask a judge to recognize the past relationship as a marriage. The partner who files the paperwork will need to present evidence and witnesses to support the request. To prove to the court that a marriage existed, the filing partner must show:

  • both partners are of legal age and can give consent
  • both partners are legally capable of entering a marriage
  • the couple has lived together
  • the partners have treated each other as a spouse and treated their relationship as a marriage, and
  • both partners presented themselves as a married couple to the public, in a way that made others believe they were married.

If the court finds that the evidence is sufficient support the request, a judge will approve it and declare the couple legally married.

If the couple files the petition together, they should file it with their local county court. If the partner files the petition after the relationship has ended, it can be filed along with a divorce petition if the relationship began after 1987. Prior to a law passed in Utah in 1987, these types of nontraditional marriages were not recognized, so divorce isn't an option for those whose relationships began prior to 1987.

What Is Consent?

Both partners in the relationship must agree that their union is a marriage, which is known as consent. The person who files the petition is responsible for proving consent to the court and can do so in a variety of ways. For example, the person filing the petition can provide the court with:

  • a written agreement between the parties
  • testimony from others who were present at the time the parties made the agreement that they were in a marriage
  • proof of joint bank and credit accounts
  • evidence of a purchase and ownership of joint property
  • joint tax returns, or
  • other documents that support or declare the relationship, such as a will, deed, or power of attorney.

What are the Benefits to Having the Relationship Recognized?

Legally married couples enjoy a variety of benefits including tax breaks, inheritance and survivor rights, spousal Social Security benefits, and spousal privilege rights. Either party in an unmarried couple can petition the court for recognition, and often this occurs at the end of the relationship. Once a court declares that a marriage existed, a spouse will have access not only to all marital benefits and rights, but also to divorce-related legal protections if the couple decides to end their relationship—these include:

  • fair property settlements
  • alimony (if appropriate)
  • a share of the partner's pension and/or retirement benefits
  • attorney fee contributions from the other spouse, and
  • all the other rights and protections afforded to divorcing spouses.

It can also be helpful to have the relationship marked as a legal marriage when one partner passes away and the living partner may inherit property. If one partner dies without a will, that person's legal spouse will have automatic inheritance rights, while a nonlegal partner will not.

For more information on asking a court to recognize a marital relationship in Utah, speak with an experienced family law attorney near you.

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