A “common law marriage” is a marriage that is legally valid even though the couple didn’t obtain a marriage license or go through a wedding ceremony. Before there were laws defining the legal requirements for marriage, custom often dictated what type of behavior would show that a couple was married. Even after states began to have rules for legal marriages, courts would recognize certain actions as creating a marriage relationship outside of those laws, and some states passed additional laws specifying conduct that would establish a common law marriage.
Only a few states still allow couples to enter into true common law marriages. These are Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia. A few additional states recognize common law marriages that were formed before a certain date, and New Hampshire recognizes common law marriage for the limited purpose of determining rights of inheritance. These situations are governed by the laws of each individual state. For more information on how state laws differ, see Common Law Marriage and State Requirements.
Although requirements vary slightly from state to state, the essential elements are the same. In general, couples must meet requirements for marriage such as being single and of legal age, and in addition must do all of the following:
Courts in the United States have traditionally applied the concept of common law marriage only to relationships between heterosexual couples. Other countries may use the term “common law marriage” to denote various forms of domestic partnership, either between same-sex or opposite-sex partners. Such relationships may or may not resemble common law marriage as it has been recognized in the United States, and the applicable laws may be very different.
Couples ending a common law marriage must go through legal divorce proceedings, just like any other married couple. The major difficulty arises in proving that there has been a marriage. If one person denies that the marriage existed, the other partner will need clear evidence that both partners intended to be married. Such evidence could include a written agreement or witnesses to the couple's behavior. In some states, the law requires that the couple establish the existence of the common law marriage within a limited time period following the end of the relationship. For more information on proving a common law marriage, see Proving a Common Law Marriage.
The United States Constitution generally requires every state to recognize the laws of other states. This means that if you have been legally married according to common law in one state, other states will also consider you to be legally married. However, the existence of the marriage would depend on the couple’s actions in the original state, and this may become more difficult to prove the longer one or both partners spend time living elsewhere.