Cohabitation & Common Law Marriage

​If you and your girlfriend are currently living together and have been doing so for any significant length of time, you might actually be putting yourself at risk of being married without knowing it. Even though living together will not establish common law marriage, a significant period of cohabitation is almost always required. The period of time can be a set number of years or simply enough time to establish the intent of the parties to be married. The matter of intent is very important because the act of living with someone is usually not enough evidence to support a common law marriage by itself.
A common law marriage is a legally recognized marriage except without any licensing or marriage ceremony. A common law marriage delivers the same rights, benefits and responsibilities of a legally recognized marriage and you have to get a real divorce to legally terminate the relationship. Having a child with your live-in girlfriend does not automatically establish a common law marriage, but a birth certificate acknowledging that you are both the actual parents of the child could be used to show intent to be married. Other documents that could be used as legal evidence to support a common law marriage would include any insurance policies naming your girlfriend as beneficiary, joint ownership of financial accounts, and any titles, leases and other legal records that show joint ownership of property with your girlfriend.
Common law marriages are not recognized in all states and the status is usually limited only to heterosexual couples in most instances. Some states will only recognize common law marriages created before a certain date and a few of states will only recognize common law marriages for specific limited purposes such as in determining inheritance rights.
The U.S. states that recognize common law marriage are:
    District of Columbia
    Georgia (if created before 1997)
    Idaho (if created before 1996)
    Kansas (both parties must be at least 18 years of age)
    New Hampshire (only upon death)
    Ohio (if created before 10/91)
    Oklahoma (if created before 1998)
    Pennsylvania (if created before 2005)
    Rhode Island
    South Carolina
    Texas (called an "informal marriage")
    Utah (must be validated by court order)
Many misconceptions exist as to what creates a common law marriage and even if you are sure that you are not yet legally married, it can be important to check with a lawyer to be sure because once a common law marriage has been established in a state where it is legal, that marriage must also be recognized by all other states. Although people may have heard that living together for seven to ten years will create a common law marriage, that generality is not true. Common law marriage is based more on the existence of any documents and actions that show a couple is acting as a married couple. Those specific actions usually include your girlfriend taking your last name, filing a joint tax return, and referring to each other as husband and wife.
If you have been cohabiting with your girlfriend for a long time, it might be in your best interests to make sure your casual approach to the technicalities of “letting it ride” doesn’t trap you in a legal predicament that could eventually be very difficult to get out of.