Are you an unmarried couple in California seeking to coexist without a formal marriage? Or maybe you moved into California recently from a state that recognizes common law marriage, and you’re wondering if you will still enjoy the same rights and responsibilities of common law marriage in California.

Unfortunately, California state does not recognize common law marriage. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Stick around until the end to learn more about the concept of common law marriage in California, whether it will ever be accepted here, and what the alternatives are. 

What Is Common Law Marriage?

A common law marriage is a legally recognized marriage between two people who aren’t actually married. These couples have not obtained a marriage license or had their legal marriages formalized by a ceremony. In states that accept common law marriages, they exist when a couple meets the requirements of a common law marriage in that state.

Is There Common Law Marriage in California?

common law marriage California

As we mentioned before, common law marriage in California is not recognized. The state requires that a couple obtain a marriage license and have their marriage solemnized by a ceremony in order for the marriage to be legal.

This may come as a surprise to some, as many people believe that if they live together for a certain period of time, they are considered married under common law. The truth is, this is not the case in California. There are many other states that likewise do not recognize common law marriage, including Nevada, Colorado, and Texas.

The crux of the matter is this: if you are living in California and are not married, but believe you’re in a common law marriage, you are not. You need to go through the process of getting a marriage license and having an actual marriage ceremony if you want to be legally married in the state. However, there are exceptions, which we’ll go through below. 

Situational Common Law Marriage in California

In some cases, California recognizes common law marriages that were established in another state. This is true even if the state of California does not recognize common law marriage. In other words, if a couple with a common law marriage moves to California, California will recognize their arrangement as long as it meets the following requirements:

  • The couple must have cohabitated in the state where the marriage was established and held themselves out to the public as a married couple.
  • Common law marriage must also be recognized by the state where it was established in order for it to be recognized in California.

There are a few exceptions to this exception. For example, if common law marriage was established in a state that has since abolished common law marriage, then it would not be recognized in California. Additionally, common law marriage in California is not recognized if the couple has not filed for a declaration of marriage with the county clerk.

Common Law Marriage in the Other States of the US

In the United States, common law marriage is not recognized in these federal government states:

  • West: Arizona, California, Oregon, Vermont
  • Southwest: Arkansas
  • Midwest: Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Wisconsin
  • Southeast: Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina
  • Northeast: Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia

If you live in these states and want to be considered married under common law, you need to move to one of the states that recognize it.

The states that recognize common law marriage are:

  • West: Colorado, Utah
  • Southwest: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Midwest: Iowa, Kansas, Montana
  • Southeast: Alabama, District of Columbia, Georgia, South Carolina
  • Northeast: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island

Requirements for Common Law Marriage in These States

In the states that recognize it, the couple simply lives together for a certain period of time and considers themselves to be married. However, even in these states, there are certain requirements that couples must meet to be considered married under common law.

To be considered a candidate for common law marriage in these states, you have to meet the following requirements:

  • You and your partner must have cohabitated for a specified period. The specified period varies from state to state, but it is typically between two and seven years.
  • You both must essentially identify yourselves as a married couple. Legally, this means you have to refer to each other as husband and wife, file taxes jointly, etc. 
  • The couple must intend to be married. Right from the beginning of the relationship, the couple should have a marriage license application underway.

There are a few states that have additional legal requirements, but those listed above are the most common.

What Are the Rights of Unmarried and Married Couples in California?

common law marriage California

Most couples who want a common law marriage in California are interested in certain spousal benefits the arrangement affords. California recognizes a few different types of civil contract relationships affording such benefits, including marriage, registered domestic partnerships, and unregistered cohabiting relationships. They all have their rights and responsibilities.

Keep in mind that marriage is the only relationship that is recognized by the state as a legal and binding contract. Evidence of marriage includes a marriage certificate; this is important for cementing the marriage agreement. A legal union gives couples many marital rights and responsibilities, including:

  • Filing taxes jointly and having joint bank accounts
  • Inheriting from each other
  • Acting as a medical decision makers for each other
  • Division of retirement benefits
  • Supporting each other financially and caring for each other in times of illness.

Rights and Responsibilities of Various Domestic Partnerships

Registered domestic partnerships give you most, but not all, of the same rights as a statutory marriage. For example, registered domestic partners (or a common-law spouse) can file taxes jointly. However, community property laws differ here. Domestic partners cannot inherit from each other unless they have a will that specifically states that they want their partner to inherit their community property.

Registered domestic partnerships also come with many of the same responsibilities as marriage, such as the obligation to support each other financially and care for each other in times of illness, sometimes for an extended period. However, even in these aspects, the unmarried couple lacks some legal rights as the married couple.

What About Palimony Laws in California?

In California,palimony is like spousal support for an invalid marriage, including a common law marriage. Palimony is generally defined as financial support paid by one former spouse to the other after the termination of their domestic or marital relationship. Palimony may be ordered by family law courts during divorce proceedings, or it may be agreed upon by the divorcing parties in a written settlement agreement.

There is no specific formula for calculating palimony in California: The amount and the time period of payments depend on the circumstances of your case. However, there are some general guidelines that the family court follows when making a palimony determination for an alternative type of marriage. 

The courts use the following factors to determine the amount you’ll pay or get paid as palimony after an alleged common-law marriage: 

  • The length of the marriage or domestic partnership
  • Age and health 
  • Earning capacity
  • Standard of living during the informal marriage
  • Contributions to the marriage or domestic partnership, including homemaking, childrearing, and careerbuilding
  • Relative needs of each party
  • The ability of the paying spouse to support themselves while making payments
  • Tax consequences of the palimony payments

In California, palimony payments are typically made on a monthly basis, although they can also be paid in a lump sum or in some other periodic arrangement. There is no set duration for palimony payments, and they may be ordered for a specific period of time or indefinitely.

If you are seeking alimony for couples or palimony in California for this type of union, you may choose to consult a family law attorney for their legal opinions.

Future of Common Law Marriage in California

common law marriage California

 A formal marriage in California requires legal paperwork and documents in the state to make it valid. The fact that couples who live together often consider themselves to be married despite not going through a formal ceremony or obtaining a marriage license can have a number of implications if the relationship ends. This is particularly true when it comes to tricky aspects of family law, such as the division of assets and custody of any children.

There has been some discussion of changing the law to recognize common law marriage, but so far, no concrete steps have been taken. At present, it seems unlikely that the law will change in the near future. However, it is possible that as more and more couples choose to live together without getting married, pressure will build for a change in the law to afford these couples the legal benefits of marriage. Only time will tell what the future of common law marriage in California will be.

Let A People’s Choice Assist You with Common Law Marriage in California

A People’s Choice is a legal document preparation service that can help you fill out all kinds of legal paperwork in California. We can prepare an effective and comprehensive cohabitation agreement or help you make your marriage legal to prevent any problems or protect you in the event you break up. We can also handle your estate documents and necessary insurance benefits forms to protect you and your partner in the event of death.

With A People’s Choice, you can avoid a notoriously expensive family lawyer. Be there for your unmarried partner and handle any connected estate planning concerns with A People’s Choice!