Built on the foundations of love, marriage is often thought of as the greatest expression of affection between two individuals. Not every long-term relationship will take this step, however. Whether for financial reasons, individual reasons, or just not wanting to make the full commitment, an increasing number of couples choose to share their lives together without the pomp and circumstance of a wedding. Couples in these situations live as if they are married and build a life together, including collecting assets, sharing a home, and having children. But, like all relationships, there is a risk that it could end.

Assuming relationships such as these are protected by what is referred to as “common law” could cause major conflicts when this relationship ends and leave you with more questions than answers. Here, we look at what common law marriages are and how they may impact you in California.

Is Common Law Marriage Recognized in California?

Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage is the phrase used in some states to describe a couple that has chosen to live in a way that looks and feels like a marriage would. The couple cohabitates, shares expenses and bank accounts, chooses to have children with one another, and sometimes even wears rings as a symbol of their unity. However, all of this happens without the legal marriage process that includes a formal filing of a marriage certificate. However, what many couples in this situation do not realize is that California does not recognize such circumstances as common law marriage.

Exceptions to Common Law Marriage

As with most legal circumstances, common law marriage in California does come with exceptions. Because this type of marriage is recognized in other states, a couple that moves to California from such a state may have their relationship recognized as such by the state of California because they built a relationship on the grounds that it would be recognized as a marriage. The key to these circumstances is that California will not declare a relationship to be common law, but they will recognize it should the couple come from another state where it is legal.

States where common law marriage is recognized include Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington DC. In these states, couples who are seeking to have their relationship recognized as a common law marriage will need to meet certain requirements that often include a minimum age, a minimum length of time in which they live together, and various other obligations.

If a couple comes to California, but one spouse recognizes the “marriage” and the other disputes it, then legal issues may become complicated, and the relationship may ultimately not be recognized.

The Significance of Common Law Marriage

Even though California does not offer common law marriage, it is a common assumption for many couples because of the implications that come from its declaration should a relationship come to an end. If a married couple chooses to end the relationship through divorce, they are obligated to reach a divorce settlement, which establishes important decisions such as child custody, child support, property division, and spousal support. However, without the recognition of common law marriage, couples will find some of those decisions more difficult.

Decisions like child custody and support can be litigated through the court system because they involve the welfare of a child, and therefore, any couple, whether they’re married or not, who shares a child is legally required to ensure it is properly cared for physically and financially.

Other decisions between couples who are not married, like property and asset division and spousal support, are much more complicated — there is no legal arrangement for either if the couple is not married. Regardless of the length of time a couple chooses to live together while unmarried in California, it’s unlikely that courts will get involved in disputes surrounding such issues because the couple is not legally married. The court might allow the case of spousal support or property division to be argued, but they will first want to establish if common law marriage was recognized in another state before the couple started living in California.


Q: How Long Do You Have to Be Together for Common Law Marriage in California?

A: California does not recognize common law marriage, and therefore, there is no length of time where it will apply. However, if a couple lives in a different state prior to moving to California and that state recognizes common law, on average, they must reside together for three years, but this time could vary from state to state.

Q: When Did California Stop Recognizing Common Law Marriage?

A: California once recognized common law marriage; however, it was over 100 years ago. In 1895, the state abolished the practice and changed the law to state that a marriage is a civil contract between two individuals with the full consent of each. Since then, the state has recognized common law marriage from other states but will not honor it for those living in California.

Q: Do Unmarried Couples Have Rights in California?

A: Couples who are unmarried in California have the right to enter into an agreement with each other that provides for the division of assets and spousal support should the relationship end. However, married couples automatically receive these rights when they enter into a marital contract with one another.

Q: Does the IRS Recognize Common Law Marriage?

A: The IRS recognizes common law marriage at the federal level if the couple lives in a state where it is legal. If a couple moves from a state where it is recognized to a state where it is not, they are still recognized federally for tax purposes. This means that a couple under common law marriage would be recognized as married for tax purposes.

California Family Law Attorney

Common law marriage is an assumption that can create many complications should a long-term relationship end if the couple has never legally married. You may feel you are entitled to certain assets or financial assistance only to find that you are not. If you have questions about how your long-term relationship could impact you in the event of a breakup, contact a family law attorney who can help answer your questions. Contact the Law Offices of Schwartz and Godbey and let us help answer your questions.