What is Common Law Marriage? / by Cassandra Hearn

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The definition of “family” is ever changing in today’s society.  It is now common for people to live together for months, years, or even a lifetime without formalizing their relationship by getting married.  Naturally, informal relationships break down just as marriages sometimes do.  When this happens, there can be difficult issues regarding property and support, and one or both parties may claim they were “common law married,” and therefore should have the legal benefits to which a divorcing couple would normally be entitled.  However, California has important restrictions and limitations concerning common law marriage.

First, and most importantly, is that California family law does not make provision for common law marriage.  This means that if you and your partner have been residing together in California, it does not matter how long you have lived together, if you have held yourself out to be married, or if you intended to get married.  If the entirety of that relationship took place in California, then California will not recognize the relationship as a common law marriage.  This means that if you and your partner decide to go your separate ways, you do not need a divorce.  Although this seems to simplify the process, it can have enormous ramifications in terms of property division and support.  With a divorce, property and assets would be divided equally and one spouse could request spousal support.  Without a divorce, a civil suit may be the only remedy to divide property.  Spousal support would not be available--except in extremely limited circumstances. 

One such circumstance is a potential exception to the general principle that California does not recognize common law marriage.  If you and your partner resided together in a state or foreign country that does recognize common law marriage, and while residing there you and your partner fulfilled the requirements of that state for common law marriage, California may recognize the common law marriage in the event you and your partner reside in California when the relationship becomes untenable.  For example, if you and your partner resided together in Alabama, while living there fulfilled the Alabama requirements for common law marriage, and then you both moved to California, it would be possible the court in California could treat you as married.

If you have questions about common law marriage and whether the doctrine applies to you, contact us today at 619-800-0384.  We can talk about your relationship and your future.