A minority of states continues to recognize common law, or informal, marriages. Such a marriage requires more than mere cohabitation between a man and a woman. The couple generally must agree to enter into a martial arrangement, must cohabit with one another, and must hold themselves out as husband and wife to others. Parties that enter into such marriages enjoy the same rights as couples married in a formal ceremony, including rights related to insurance and other benefits, property distribution on dissolution of the marriage, and distribution of property upon the death of one spouse.
Proof that the marriage exists is often the most difficult aspect of a common law marriage, and this issue often arises after the relationship has ended either in death or divorce. For example, the question of whether a common law marriage exists may arise after one of the partners in a relationship dies and the other seeks to prove that the partners were informally married to receive property through the other partner’s estate. Similarly, when a relationship ends, a partner may seek to prove that an informal marriage exists in order to seek property distribution under marital or community property laws.
Though a minority of states recognizes common law marriages, all states will recognize the validity of a common law marriage if it is recognized in the state where the parties reside, agreed to be married, and hold themselves out as husband and wife. Common law marriages apply only to partners who are members of the opposite sex.