If you've considered yourself to be married—even though you and your partner never got a marriage license or had a ceremony—you might have a common law marriage. But that will depend on where you lived when you established your relationship and whether you can prove you meet the legal requirements for valid common law marriages.
You might need to prove that you have a valid common law marriage in a number of situations, including when you:
Couples in valid common law marriages generally have the same legal rights and obligations as any other married couple. If you want to take advantage of those rights, you'll typically need to prove that:
For your common law marriage to be valid, the state where you live must recognize your relationship as a legitimate common law marriage. States have different laws on common law marriage, which generally fall into one of these categories:
For a common law marriage to be valid, both partners must intend to live as a married couple during their relationship. This generally means that you and your partner voluntarily entered into a long-term, committed, intimate relationship with the intention to take on the social and legal responsibilities of marriage.
Typically, you and your partner must have "held yourself out" to the public as a married couple. The exact standard will depend on your state, but a judge will generally look at all the circumstances and consider whether you both consistently presented yourselves as a married couple to family, friends, and members of the community.
To establish a valid common law marriage, you and your partner must generally have lived together (or "cohabitated") consistently during the marriage. Contrary to popular belief, there's no rule that you must live together for seven years, or for any set amount of time.
Because it's now more common for unmarried couples to live together without planning to get married, some courts have said that cohabitation is becoming a less important factor in determining whether a common law marriage exists. However, it's still generally a minimum requirement.
In addition to living together, you'll need to show that you mutually assumed the responsibilities of a marriage, by doing things like sharing your income and expenses, leasing or owning a home together, raising children together, or both contributing to the upkeep of your home. You don't necessarily need to do all of these things to qualify. A judge will consider all the circumstances and decide whether, on whole, you lived and acted like a married couple.
To qualify for a common law marriage, you'll typically need to satisfy the other general marriage requirements in your state. For example, in most states both spouses must be at least 18 years old (or sometimes younger than that with a parent's consent) and have the mental capacity to understand the commitment and consequences of marriage.
All states also have laws that prohibit marriage between close relatives (incest) or marriage to more than one person at the same time (bigamy).
The details of these requirements vary, and the laws may change over time—so it's important to understand the specific requirements that apply in your state.
The exact evidence you'll need to prove a common law marriage will depend on your state's laws. But here are some examples of evidence that may help to prove a valid common law marriage:
Same-sex marriage has been legal in all 50 states since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Obergefell case in 2015. (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015).) Other courts have consistently held that this decision applies equally to common law marriages between same-sex couples.
Although same-sex couples have the same legal right as opposite-sex couples to establish a common law marriage, gay and lesbian partners may have a harder time gathering the evidence required to prove that their relationship qualifies. For instance, these couples didn't have the option to file joint tax returns or list their partner as their spouse on many official documents before same-sex marriage was legalized. Also, because gays and lesbians often faced discrimination in social and professional settings, same-sex couples haven't always had the ability to hold themselves out in public as a married couple.
Some courts have held that judges should take a broad view that considers these realities when assessing evidence of a same-sex common law marriage. Even so, same-sex partners will still need to show, through their conduct, that they both intended to live together as a married couple.
Proving that your relationship qualifies as a valid common law marriage can be challenging. If you have any questions or concerns, you should consider consulting with an experienced lawyer who can help you understand your state's specific requirements.
If you can't afford a lawyer, you may be eligible for free or low-cost legal services through your local legal aid organization. Court employees at the self-help desk or civil clerk's office at your local courthouse can also answer questions and direct you to the forms you'll need to begin the process.