Common law marriage is a form of marriage solemnised without a member of the clergy or a judge. The majority of states do not accept common law marriage. Of the states that do recognise common law marriage, most do not set a specific period for a couple to live together before being able to declare themselves married. Those states, however, often have entirely different requirements for a common law marriage to be recognised.
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No Cohabitation First
Neither Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina nor the District of Columbia require a couple to live together for any set period of time before declaring themselves husband and wife under common law. In Alabama and Montana, a couple must simply be legally able and willing to marry, and then must move in together, have a sexual relationship and affirm the existence of their marriage to friends and relations. In Colorado, a couple merely has to declare themselves married in order to be so, though the state does see cohabitation as an important proof of the willingness of the couple to enter the marriage. In Kansas, any two heterosexuals older than 17 and legally able to wed can validate a marriage by stating it to friends and relations.
Iowa, Utah,Texas and New Hampshire do require a couple to live together for some amount of time before declaring themselves married under common law, but none of them sets a clear guideline on the amount of time necessary. Both Iowa and Utah, for instance, mandate a couple to live together before declaring themselves married, but neither state specifies the period required. New Hampshire requires a couple to live together three years in order to be granted a marriage under common law, but it recognises that marriage only after the death of either the husband or wife, and only in order to grant the surviving spouse a fair portion of the estate.
Many states have outlawed common marriage but continue to recognise common law marriages begun before the imposition of that law as valid. Ohio, for example, only recognises common law marriages begun before Oct. 10, 1991, and Oklahoma only recognises those begun before Nov. 1, 1998. Likewise, Georgia only recognises those unions begun before 1997, and Pennsylvania only recognises those started before 2005. In any of these states, a couple in a common law marriage begun before the relevant cut-off date can still declare themselves married, even without prior legal recognition of that marriage; however, none of these states sets clear guidelines for how to achieve that status.
States accepting common law marriage grant it the same status as a marriage performed by a clergy member or a judge. For that reason, only a ruling of divorce can end such a marriage, and the absence of a spouse from the marriage does not annul it.
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- Alabama Attorney General; Walker Ponda Waller v. Irene P. Waller; June 1990
- Attorney General, Colorado Department of Law: Common Legal Questions
- State of Oklahoma: Oklahoma Statutes
- Travis County, Texas; Common Law Marriage; October 2010
- Georgia Code: Common Law Marriage
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