California Common-Law Marriage 2024: All You Need to Know

Common-law marriage generally refers to a couple who were never officially married but consider themselves married after a certain number of years. These marriages are only recognized in some states. Rights in a common-law marriage are not the same as those in a legally valid marriage.

What Is Common-Law Marriage?

Common-law marriage occurs when partners have been together for a long period of time without getting married. Partners in a common-law marriage will often make a verbal agreement of marriage without legally doing so. Partners will often:

  • Live together.
  • Have and raise children.
  • Share finances.
  • Interact as a couple.
  • Share special occasions.

Common-law marriages do not require the ceremony or licensing of a traditional marriage. However, common-law marriage is not federally recognized. It is also only valid in a handful of states.

Even if your common-law marriage is valid in your state, you do not have the same federal rights as married couples. Couples in common-law marriages must file federal taxes separately. To receive parental rights in common-law marriages, both parties must sign a child’s birth certificate. Otherwise, only the biological parent will have legal rights and responsibilities towards their child.

Common-Law Marriage in California

The state of California does not recognize common-law marriages. State marital benefits during partnership and after divorce are only available to traditional marriages. Domestic partnerships allow limited marital benefits under state law but not federal law. Even if you meet the requirements for a common-law marriage in another state, you are not considered married if you reside in California.

Exceptions to California Recognition

There are circumstances where a common-law marriage is recognized in California. If you and your partner lived in a state where common-law marriage was recognized, and you met the requirements in that state, your common-law marriage is considered valid in California. If you move to California, you may need to have the marriage recognized. However, it is generally considered valid.

California Rights for Unmarried Couples

Not every partnership is interested in getting legally married. However, there are no automatic legal rights for unmarried couples like there are for married couples. There are several aspects of a relationship that may be an issue in marriage or in separation if certain steps are not taken.

  • Property: If you and your partner are not part of a legally recognized marriage or partnership, you do not automatically have shared property rights. You and your partner must establish joint ownership of a home, or you must both be on the deed.
  • Finances: When a couple is not legally married or in a domestic partnership, their finances remain separate. If one party in the relationship dies, their partner has no right to their personal bank, retirement, credit card, or investment accounts. To retain financial ownership, you and your partner must make each of these accounts jointly owned. If you and your partner are separating, you want to ensure that you have no jointly owned accounts.
  • Children: Partners who have children together without being legally married can have equal rights and responsibilities for their children. Both parents must agree and sign the child’s birth certificate, declaring themselves legal parents. If one partner contests this status, things are more complicated. Separation and child custody are more complex when the parties are not married.

Domestic Partnerships in California

If you and your partner do not want a legal marriage, but you would like some of the benefits of one, you can enter into a domestic partnership. This does not require the same ceremonial recognition. However, it does require some legal paperwork. Domestic partnerships are not federally recognized. Nevertheless, they still provide you with certain martial benefits, including:

  • Filing joint state taxes
  • Automatic paternity rights and responsibilities
  • Joint adoption
  • Hospital visitation
  • Bereavement leave
  • Family leave
  • Automatic inheritance

A domestic partnership in California can give you some of the benefits that unmarried couples do not have without having the same legal permanence as a complete legal marriage.

FAQs About California Common-Law Marriage

What Rights Do Unmarried Couples Have in California?

Unmarried couples have no automatic rights under California law. To establish legal rights, couples must sign specific legal agreements. This includes establishing the paternity of children, which allows them to inherit property from their parents. Legal documents are also necessary to claim tax benefits, access medical documents, and have access to property and accounts.

What Three Factors Must Be Established for a Common-Law Marriage to Exist?

Common requirements for states that recognize common-law marriages include:

  1. You live together for a certain period.
  2. You both intend to be married or declare marriage.
  3. You must publicly refer to each other as married.

These requirements may vary based on the state. States that recognize common-law marriages as of 2024 include Colorado, Iowa, Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Carolina, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

What Is Considered Common-Law Marriage in California?

A common-law marriage is not a legally recognized form of marriage. Common-law marriage exists when two partners:

  • Perform common aspects of marriage.
  • Live together for a certain number of years.
  • Consider themselves married.

This is only legally valid in seven states as of 2024. Common-law marriage couples who move to California may have to have their marriage validated, but it is often recognized. However, the couple must meet the requirements for common-law marriage in the state they moved from.

What Is the 10-Year Rule in California?

When a legally recognized and licensed marriage lasts ten years or more, it is considered to be a long-term marriage. This can impact spousal support on the state and federal level if you and your partner get divorced after a long-term marriage. You may be eligible for Social Security benefits after retirement from an ex-spouse’s benefits. In California, spousal support is not automatically terminated when a long-term marriage ends. It can still be modified for changed circumstances involving either spouse.

Determine Your Legal Options

Unmarried partnerships can run into legal issues when one party dies or the couple separates. You have fewer legal protections in these situations, and you will not be entitled to inheritance or spousal support. If you are unsure whether your common-law marriage is recognized, or you need to establish what legal rights you and your partner have for separation, contact the attorneys at Najera Law Group, P.C. We can help you determine how to protect your interests during separation.



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