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Am I Really Married if It’s a Common Law Marriage?

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It’s a widely held belief that living with someone for a specific length of time means you’re married even if you haven’t filed any paperwork to make it so. While about a quarter of the states in the US recognize common law marriage, it’s not quite as simple as a long-term living arrangement. If you’re hoping to skip all the formalities of a regular marriage, it’s to your advantage to learn more about how common law marriage works in your state.

General common law marriage requirements

Unlike what some people believe, you don’t wake up one morning and realize you’re accidentally married. Common law marriage is a more deliberate step and typically has four requirements. They are:

  1. You and your partner live together
  2. You and your partner present yourself as a married couple to others and may even file joint tax returns
  3. You and your partner have lived together for a significant period that can vary from state to state
  4. You and your partner plan to get married at some point.

If you meet these four requirements and live in a state that recognizes common law marriage, congratulations, you’re probably married. That said, not all states recognize the common law marriages that are valid in other states. This means it’s possible for you and your common law spouse to move to a new state and no longer be considered man and wife.

Common law marriage and government agencies

While having legal paperwork validating your marriage may be little more than a formality to you and your spouse, things can get trickier when government agencies are involved. For instance, you may only be entitled to social security survivor benefits when you live in a state that recognizes your common law marriage and can provide:

  • Statements about your marriage from at least two blood relatives
  • Supporting evidence of your marriage, like the joint tax returns you filed.

Since it can be difficult to get some government and private sector agencies to recognize your marriage, you may find that it’s simply easier to obtain a marriage license and visit a justice of the peace to ensure your marriage is widely recognized.

Ending a common law marriage

While there may be such a thing as common law marriage in your state, no state recognizes a common law divorce. They don’t exist. This means that you must follow the same divorce procedures as any other married couple in your state. If you’re not sure whether your common law marriage was legally recognized, you may want to consult with a divorce attorney to better understand the legal ramifications of ending the relationship.

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