Marriage without Benefit of Clergy

            There is an institution in the United States called “common law marriage.”  This is a state of marriage entered into by adults who have decided to form a marriage without interference from the state or the clergy.  This institution is widely misunderstood.  During the late ‘90s there was outright hostility to “non-traditional” pairings.  A misguided group of moral crusaders launched an assault on unions which they considered inferior or defective.  These zealots were able to take advantage of an amazing lack of understanding of what marriage is and what it isn’t.

            Common law marriage is not legal in all states and the rules vary among the states which recognize it.  There is a common thread, however.  All of the states require cohabitation and that the couple hold themselves out in the community as husband and wife. In no state is there a time line for establishment.  The idea of an automatic legal recognition after seven years of cohabitation is a popular myth.  The other important thing to note is that common law marriage, where it is recognized, is an institution equal to a state/church sanctioned marriage and dissolution of a common law marriage requires a legal divorce.

            The states which currently recognize common law marriage are:

Alabama Colorado District of Columbia Georgia (if created before 1/1/1997) Idaho (if created before 1/1/1996) Iowa Kansas Montana New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only) New Mexico Ohio (if created before 10/10/1991) Oklahoma (possibly only if created before 11/1/1998 but the laws and court decisions are in conflict with regard to recognition of marriages created after 11/1/1998) Pennsylvania (if created before 1/1/2005) Rhode Island South Carolina Texas Utah

Couples living in common law states can cohabitate without being married.  In this case, none of the benefits of marriage will eschew to the cohabitants.  It is strongly advised that couples wishing not to marry draft a cohabitation agreement which specifies the nature of the cohabitation and the intent not to marry.

One of the major differences between common law marriages and same sex marriages is portability.  So far, if couples reside in a common law state when they form the marriage and subsequently move to another state the marriage is still recognized as a legal marriage.  The federal government also recognizes common law couples as legally married.  With the changes which have occurred in response to same-sex marriage, it is possible that some states may want to exercise their option when it comes to common law marriages also.  For the time being, however, entering into a common law marriage is the same as purchasing a marriage license.  Both types of marriage carry the same rights and responsibilities and, regardless of a state issued license, the institution is as strong or as weak as the individuals involved and their commitment to each other.