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California Common Law Marriage

What is Common-Law Marriage in California?

A common-law marriage (also known as an informal marriage) is a union between two people who live together and describe themselves as "married," even though they haven’t obtained a marriage license or officially gone through a formal marriage ceremony in the state of California. Multiple states recognize this type of marriage, including Iowa, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Utah, District of Columbia, and Colorado. Common-law marriages provide an alternative option for couples who wish to save money or avoid the formalities of a traditional wedding. Common-law marriages also offer several marital entitlements and rights to the parties involved, some of which include:

  • Rights of insurance
  • Child custody rights upon termination of the relationship (if the couple share a kid)
  • Alimony and property division on relationship termination
  • Prison or jail visitation rights
  • Healthcare benefits
  • Inheritance rights
  • Hospital visitation rights

While a common-law marriage may provide an alternative to formal marriage, it has a few disadvantages. Some of the cons associated with a common-law marriage include:

  • It may be hard to prove (especially if the spouse is deceased and no legal document exists to prove the relationship)
  • The burden of proof is on contesting party in the event of a divorce

Couples who wish to enter into a common-law marriage will need to meet the state’s local requirements of the state, some of which may include being of legal age and living together for a set period.

Marriage in California

In 2019, the marriage rate in California hit a 20-year low with 5.7 marriages per 1,000 residents and a divorce rate recorded at 6.9% per 1,000 married couples. A survey of the population aged 15 and older revealed that 45 percent of the females were married vs 48% of men. 14% of the female demographic were either separated or divorced, compared to 10% for men.

Does California Recognize Common-Law Marriages?

California does not allow common-law marriages in the state. However, the state recognizes the validity of unions established in states with common marriage laws—in compliance with the U.S constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause. California also recognizes unions that exist outside of a formal marriage such as domestic partnership and cohabitation agreements. In addition, California permits divorce proceedings for couples with common-law marriages that originate from states where this type of union is legal.

What is a Domestic Partnership in California?

A California domestic partnership is a legal relationship that extends the rights, protections, obligations, and benefits of marriage to couples. Individuals who wish to enter into a domestic relationship must meet the requirements set by the state—as outlined under the California family code. Couples are also required to register with the California Secretary of State by submitting a completed Declaration of Partnership form.

Almost anyone can register a domestic partnership as long as they are older than 18. However—although the rights provided under a domestic partnership are far-reaching—they're limited to only the benefits provided under California state law. For instance, domestic partners are not allowed to file for federal tax using a marriage filing.

What is a Cohabitation Agreement in California?

A California cohabitation agreement is a binding agreement between a couple living together. Similar in some ways to a prenuptial agreement, it outlines each spouse's obligations and sets rules on the division of assets in the event of a separation. Cohabitation agreements are a common option with romantic couples who co-own property, investments, or share bank accounts.

California Common-Law Marriage and Palimony

Although California does not recognize common-law marriages, the state has a palimony system that provides a path for relief to separation claims outside the jurisdiction of family courts. Under the state’s palimony laws, unmarried partners who split after several years of cohabiting together may be eligible for spousal support. Several factors come into play when a court decides whether to hear disputes for asset division or support. Some of these include:

  • The duration of the relationship
  • The length of time the couple spent cohabiting
  • The existence of any written financial agreement or implied contracts
  • The sacrifices made by the challenging partner
  • The contribution made by one partner towards the growth of the other

Palimony cases are a lot easier to prove when couples have an express agreement that defines the terms of the relationship. Cases involving relationship breaches where the agreement is implied and not written are generally harder to prove. In such instances, the court may rely on additional evidence in making a decision such as whether:

  • The couple jointly purchased a property or home
  • The couple maintain a joint account for earnings
  • The couple used joint credit cards

What are the Requirements for a Common-Law Marriage in California?

California abolished common-law marriages in 1895. Instead, the state recognizes other non-marital relationships such as cohabitation agreements and domestic partnerships. Almost anyone can register as a domestic partner as long as they meet the state’s requirements, which include:

  • Both persons must be older than 18 years of age (underage parties will require a court order)
  • Both persons must be single and not currently married or united to another party via a different domestic partnership
  • Both persons must be unrelated by blood
  • Both persons must be able to give their consent to the relationship

California has no residency requirements for domestic partnerships, which means out-of-state couples can file for domestic partnerships. Intending partners must submit a completed form with notarized signatures to the California Secretary of State. Submissions can be done in person at the Sacramento office or sent via mail to the:

Secretary of State,
Domestic Partners Registry,
P.O. Box 942870,
Sacramento, CA 94277-2870

How Many Years Do You Have to Live Together for Common-Law Marriage in California?

California family laws do not permit common-law marriages in the state—regardless of how long a couple has lived together. That said, couples who have been together for multiple years might be able to secure some marital rights by entering into a domestic partnership or signing a cohabitation agreement. This relationship is only valid within the borders of California and doesn't extend to federal laws.

What is an Informal Marriage in California?

An informal marriage is a term used to describe common-law marriages in the state of Texas. Although California does not recognize informal marriages established within its borders, it recognizes the validity of common-law marriages that occur in other states that support this type of union. If a couple with an informal marriage from Texas moves to California, their relationship is considered valid and is treated as such.

How Do You Prove Common-Law Marriage in California?

The best evidence for a common-law marriage is a written agreement signed by both parties that indicates their willingness to start a civil union; or a notarized affidavit signed by the partner who is denying the relationship. In cases where no agreement or affidavit exists, the court relies on testimony and supporting evidence provided by both parties in deciding the validity of the marriage claim. Some of the things that may lend credence to the existence of a common-law marriage include the:

  • Evidence of rental agreements or joint leases
  • Proof of shared residential property
  • Documents supporting the view that both parties have lived together at the same address (i.e driver’s license)
  • Affidavits from persons or family members who are familiar with the relationship
  • Insurance policies listing the spouse as a beneficiary
  • Testimony from witnesses stating that the couples referred to each other as husband and wife
  • Supporting documents such as joint bank accounts, joint tax returns, and joint credit accounts
  • Birth certificate naming both partners as parents of a child
  • Loan documents, promissory notes, and mortgages jointly financed by the couple
  • Documents that show one partner has taken the name of the common-law spouse

Third-party websites may also provide an alternative option to obtaining public vital records. These non-governmental platforms come with intuitive search tools that help simplify the process of accessing single or multiple records. However, record availability on third-party sites tends to vary because they’re independent of government sources. To obtain public marriage records, requesters may need to provide:

  • The full name of both spouses (include first, middle, and last names)
  • The date the marriage occurred (month, date, and year)
  • The location where the marriage occurred (city and county)

How Do You Prove Common-Law Marriage in California After Death?

In the event of a spouse’s death, a widowed partner can prove a common-law marriage by providing documents supporting the claim. The husband or wife may also provide a statement affirming the existence of the marriage, with supporting testimony from two relatives of the deceased. However, this option is only permitted for common-law marriages that were established outside California. For the marriage to be recognized in California, the couple must have met the criteria for a valid common-law marriage in the state where the union occurred.

Do Common-Law Marriages Require a Divorce?

Couples in a valid common-law marriage who wish to separate will need to file for divorce using the same process as a ceremonial marriage. California recognizes valid common-law marriages originating from other states and permits divorces proceedings. Couples may need to hire attorneys to assist with court visits as well as details such as property division, spousal support, and child custody. A division of assets is generally easier if the couple signed prenuptial agreements prior to the marriage.

Does a Common-Law Wife Have Rights in California?

California preserves the marital rights and benefits of couples who established a common-law marriage in a state where this type of union is legal. Common-law partners may be able to assert many of the rights of married couples, including rights related to property distribution in the event of a death or divorce.

Can a Common-Law Wife Collect Social Security in California?

Couples residing in California may be able to collect social security if the marriage was held in another state with laws that support common-law marriage (as at the time of the union). Common-law spouses who meet the validity requirement will need to provide proof by submitting a Statement of Marital Relationship Form as well as an additional statement from a blood relationship, speaking to the credibility of the marriage. Some of the information that partners must provide include:

  • The Month and year of when they began to live as husband and wife
  • The city/town and state where the union occurred
  • The length of time and places they have lived together as man and wife
  • If the relationship has any children
  • The couples former names (if changed)
  • A list of relatives, neighbors or employers who are aware of the relationship

Are Common-Law Wives Entitled to Half in California?

In the event of a divorce, common-law wives have the same marital rights and entitlements as spouses in a ceremonial marriage. This includes a possible 50-50 split of the estate’s value. Under California’s community property laws, any income or property acquired by a couple during the marriage must be divided equally—except in cases where a couple has a prenuptial agreement that establishes otherwise. This law only applies to property acquired during the marriage. Separate property owned or received through inheritance or gift prior to the union may not be shared.

How Do You Get a Common-Law Marriage Affidavit in California?

Common-law couples can only obtain a marriage affidavit in states that recognize this type of partnership. California is not one. Although U.S states have varying requirements for common-law marriages, most states have the same general rules for what should be included in an affidavit:

  • The affidavit must indicate the state where the partners have decided to marry
  • The affidavit must state that the partners are of legal age to marry
  • The affidavit must include the date the decision was made
  • The affidavit must provide details of any other license or common-law marriage, with wedding dates and dates of termination

When Did Common-Law Marriage End in California?

California abolished common-law marriages in 1895. In 1872, the state’s legislature codified common-law marriages into state law to mean "a civil contract between consenting parties." Couples who chose to unite with a common-law marriage were granted "traditional marital rights, duties, and obligations." However, in 1895—following several high profile common-law dispute cases including Sharon v. Sharon, White v. White, and Kilburn v. Kilburn—the house passed a bill that revised this provision.

What is Considered Common-Law Marriage in California?

California marriage records do not include common-law marriages in the state. Marriage in California is defined to mean any "personal relationship arising out of a contract between two people." The state's family law also specifies that marriages must be between "consenting parties" and must be followed by the issuance of a "license and solemnization". Consent alone is not enough for marriage in California. Individuals who choose to call themselves married—without securing a license or solemnization are not legally married. However, California recognizes the validity of common-law marriages created in states with laws that support this type of relationship.

Is a Domestic Partnership the Same as a Common-Law Marriage?

Although both are types of civil unions, a domestic partnership is not the same as a common-law marriage. Individuals who enter into a domestic partnership within California are awarded the same benefits, marital rights, protections, responsibilities, duties, and obligations of marriage. But, this relationship is only valid within the boundaries of the state. Domestic partners who travel to other states are treated as single and not married.

Does the Federal Government Recognize California Common-Law Marriages?

As of 2021, only nine U.S states and the District of Columbia recognize common-law marriages. These include Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Rhode Island. Common-law marriages are also recognized and considered valid in Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Ohio as long as the union was made before a specific date. Each of these territories has specific requirements for common-law marriages. Some states have specific statutes while others determine validity by public policy and law.

The federal government only recognizes common-law marriages that originate from states where this type of marriage is legal. This includes common-law marriages that occurred in South Carolina, Texas, New Hampshire, Utah, Rhode Island, Kansas, Iowa, Montana, and Colorado. Common-law marriages from these states can be used for federal income tax purposes and immigration purposes such as securing permanent residency.