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Understanding Common Law Marriage in the U.S.

Common law marriage isn't a one-size-fits-all concept. Different states have varied criteria, and while some states fully recognize these unions, others might have specific nuances in their recognition or not recognize them at all.

Are you curious about common law marriage and its intricacies? Wondering which states acknowledge it and what the criteria are? Buckle up because today we’re diving deep into common law marriage, its recognition across various U.S. states, and some special rules associated with it.

Let’s get started!

Common Law Marriage

In simple terms, a common law marriage is a union between two individuals who live together and present themselves as a married couple, but haven’t gone through the formalities of a traditional, ceremonial marriage. Instead, their relationship evolves into a legal marriage without that fancy ceremony or a marriage license. Intriguing, right?

Am I Common Law Married?

Common law marriages aren’t defined by their duration. Instead, they’re characterized by factors like cohabitation and public presentation as spouses. While there are myths suggesting a specific number of years makes a relationship a common law marriage, that’s simply not true. The length of cohabitation is just one element considered, and in many states, there’s no specific timeframe. This resource page breaks down common misconceptions about divorce and marriage, including those about common law unions.


There are generally three elements that establish a common law marriage:

  1. Cohabitation: Living together for an extended period.
  2. Representation: Presenting yourselves publicly as a married couple (like sharing a last name).
  3. Intention: Both parties must intend and desire to be considered as married.


Remember, it’s the combination of these factors, and not just time, that makes the difference. If you’re unsure about the nuances of your relationship, it’s worth seeking out a professional opinion. Consider popping over to this consultation page for some expert advice.

States with Common Law Marriage

Good question! Not all states in the U.S. recognize common law marriages. Let’s take a tour of the states that do, and delve into their specific criteria:

  • Colorado: Common law marriage in Colorado requires both parties to be capable of entering into a marriage, cohabitating, and presenting their relationship as a marital one. Colorado doesn’t set a specific duration for cohabitation.
  • District of Columbia: Like Colorado, the District of Columbia recognizes common law marriages based on the couple’s intent and their public presentation as a married couple.
  • Iowa: Common law marriage in Iowa requires the intent to be married, continuous cohabitation, and a public declaration or representation of the relationship as a marriage.
  • Kansas: In Kansas, common law marriage is valid if both parties are 18 or older, possess the intent to be considered married, and publicly present their relationship as such.
  • Montana: Couples in Montana can be considered as having a common law marriage if they possess the capability to enter into a marriage, live together, and have a reputation as a married couple.
  • Oklahoma: In Oklahoma, the requirements include the ability to be married, mutual consent to the marriage, cohabitation, and public recognition.
  • Rhode Island: Here, the courts look at the couple’s intent, their presentation as a married couple, and their reputation among friends and family.
  • Texas: Texas requires the couple to live together, agree to be married, and represent to others that they are married. If you’re looking to dive deep into the specifics for Texas, you might find speaking with a lawyer in that state a helpful resource.


Then we have New Hampshire and Utah. New Hampshire recognizes common law marriages only for inheritance purposes after cohabitating for 3 years. Meanwhile, Utah requires a court or administrative order to validate a relationship as a common law marriage.

Pro-tip: Even if you’re in a state that doesn’t recognize common law marriages, if you have a valid common law marriage from another state, you may still be recognized as married elsewhere.  

The 10-Year Marriage Rule in California

Although California doesn’t recognize common law marriages created within the state, they do have an interesting rule related to long-term marriages. The 10-year rule in California isn’t about common law marriages but about spousal support. If a couple has been married for 10 years or longer, it’s considered a marriage of “long duration”, and spousal support might not have a set end date. This is just another reminder of how marriage rules and norms can vary from one state to the next.

Benefits and Rights

Now, why should you even care about whether you have a common law marriage? Well, being married (even common law) gives you rights and benefits:

  • Tax Breaks: File joint tax returns and possibly enjoy some tax benefits.
  • Social Security Benefits: If your partner has a larger social security benefit, you might be eligible for a larger payout based on theirs.
  • Inheritance: No will? No problem (kind of). In many states, spouses are automatically considered heirs.
  • Spousal Privilege: Can’t be forced to testify against your spouse in many legal situations.
  • Medical Decisions: If your spouse can’t make medical decisions, you’re typically next in line.


Final Thoughts

As you can see, common law marriage isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. Different states have varied criteria, and while some states fully recognize these unions, others might have specific nuances in their recognition. 

For those readers relying on their common law marriages to protect their rights, make sure that you are in a state that recognizes common marriage, that you fit the criteria of that marriage, and that you’ve taken any steps needed to protect your rights.  If you ever find yourself unsure of how common law marriage applies to you or just need support during any marital challenges, don’t hesitate to check out the services and resources available at DivorcePlus.

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