Most of us have heard the term “common law marriage,” but not everyone knows exactly what it means. And because of this, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around about common law marriages. As your family lawyer in the Bronx, The Law Offices of Diron Rutty is here to help clear up some of those misconceptions.

In today’s blog, we’ll take a look at common law marriage. First, we’ll explain exactly what common law marriage is. Then, we’ll look at what common law marriage is not. We’ll take this opportunity to address some of those persistent misconceptions. We’ll also spend a brief moment exploring the history of common law marriages and how it differs in various states. If you have any questions about common law marriage — or marriage in general — then be sure to reach out to our family lawyer offices in the Bronx. We look forward to hearing from you! Now, onto common law marriage!

Common Law Marriage in New York

Before getting into the definition of common law marriage, the very first thing we want to address is that common law marriage is not legally recognized in New York state. That’s right. Despite what you may have seen in the movies, common law marriage is simply not recognized in New York. Common law marriages have, in fact, been banned in New York for decades — dating back all the way to 1933! Indeed, common law marriages are surprisingly rare in general (but more about that later). 

Although, things aren’t quite that simple. While New York does not recognize common law marriages in its own borders, the state does recognize valid marriages created in other states — including common law marriages. So, in states that permit common law marriages, if the marriage is recognized as a valid common law marriage in that specific state, then New York will honor that marriage. While in the state, however, the only way to create a brand-new marriage relationship is to pursue a ceremonial marriage and meet all the requirements.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s turn to what common law marriage is and it is not legally recognized in New York.

What Is Common Law Marriage?

So, we’ve established that common law marriage is not recognized in New York. That’s important to know, but it probably doesn’t mean a whole lot without an understanding of what, exactly, counts as a common law marriage in the first place.

In short, common law marriage is a special marital status that is formed without a wedding service or a marriage license. This is in contrast with traditional marriages that are often referred to as “ceremonial marriages.” In states that recognize common law marriages, there will be certain criteria that a couple must meet in order to qualify. 

Is Common Law Marriage Immediate?

The most common notion of common law marriage is that couples can be considered married if they have been living together for a certain period of time. And, indeed, that is a major criteria in most states. However, common law marriage isn’t quite that simple. You might hear things like, “You’re considered married if you’ve lived together for seven years.” Even in states with common law marriages, the case for common law marriage is not so straightforward. 

While the details may vary from state to state, generally speaking you will have to prove a handful of things before you can be legally-recognized as being in a common law marriage. For instance, you may have to prove the following:

  • You and your partner agreed to be married
  • You and your partner “held yourselves out” to other people as spouses, which means that you’ve behaved in a way that causes others to believe you’re married
  • Neither of you are legally married to someone else
  • You and your partner have lived together

The second criteria can be an important one, as the case for a common law marriage is strengthened when you and your partner have been living and presenting yourself as married. This can include referring to your partner as your spouse, husband, wife, etc. Even more importantly, it has to be clear that both parties are enthusiastically entering into agreement over being married. This prevents situations of coercion or using the marriage for ulterior reasons.

Why Would Anyone Pursue Common Law Marriage?

There are many reasons why couples might be interested in a common law marriage. As family lawyers, we are familiar with the many benefits that can accompany a legally recognized marriage. This is a major part of why marriage equality was such a major victory when the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry was protected under the United States constitution. It is vital that couples, regardless of gender, are able to receive the rights and benefits that are afforded to married couples. These benefits include tax benefits, healthcare benefits, and various legal protections. These same benefits are afforded to couples that have legally-recognized common law marriages.

Where is Common Law Marriage Recognized?

As mentioned, not many states in the Union will legally recognize a common law marriage. As of 2019, the following 10 states are the only states where common law marriage can occur:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado 
  • Iowa 
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

In addition, the District of Columbia also permits common law marriages. Again, the details of common law marriage will vary from state to state, so be sure to contact family lawyers in those specific states if you want to learn more. 

Contacting a Family Lawyer

We hope that this has helped clarify common law marriage and perhaps dispel some common misconceptions. Of course, there is still plenty more to know about common law marriage, including the laws around divorce and common law marriages. Be sure to reach out to our family law offices in the Bronx with any questions you may have. And check back in with our blog in the future as we continue to explore marriage laws in New York and around the United States.