California Common Law Marriage – Everything You Need to Know

California Common Law Marriage – Everything You Need to Know

April 05, 2023

Common Law Marriage in California 2024

Some couples prefer not to get married in a traditional way and instead act as if they are married. Sometimes, state law can consider that a couple is legally married even if they haven’t a ceremony or gone to a courthouse to make it official. This is called a common-law marriage.

Understanding Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage describes when a couple has lived with each other long enough that a state considers them to be legally married. Partners may make a verbal agreement to be married, or they may meet some of the conditions of a traditionally married couple, including:

  • Living or cohabitating together
  • Having children together
  • Raising children together
  • Sharing financial information and accounts
  • Acting to friends and family as a couple would

However, despite being considered married in some states, common-law married couples do not hold the same rights as those who are legally married. This is because common law marriages are not federally recognized. Although you can file state taxes as a common-law married couple in some states, you must file federal taxes separately.

Common law marriages also do not automatically grant parental rights to their children like traditionally married couples do. Instead, parents must establish paternity.

Are Common Law Marriages Valid in California?

Only some states recognize common-law marriages. Importantly, California does not have a common law marriage law. This means that a couple won’t be considered legally married no matter how long they’ve lived together in the state of California.

Although California doesn’t consider couples in the state to be married after a long period of living together, it does recognize the marriage rights of other couples who have a common law marriage that occurred while living in another state. If a couple moves from a state where they were considered legally married under common law, they are considered married in California.

If you and your partner want to establish legal marriage in California, or any other rights automatically afforded to married couples, a Southern California Family Law Attorney can help you determine your legal options.

Is Common Law Marriage the Same as Domestic Partnership?

No. California allows domestic partnerships between any couples who wish to have one. A domestic partnership isn’t a marriage. Instead, couples with domestic partnerships do so to get certain benefits usually associated with marriage, such as being able to receive a partner’s state-administered health benefits. To learn more about domestic partnership in California, read our blog on the subject!

If partners do not wish to have a traditional marriage, but want some of the legal benefits of a marriage, a domestic partnership can be the ideal solution. Domestic partnerships do not require the same ceremony as a traditional marriage, but they do require paperwork. While a domestic partnership does not provide couples with federal benefits like a marriage does, you can receive certain marital benefits. These include:

  • Joint California taxes
  • Adoption rights
  • Automatic paternity rights
  • Family and bereavement leave
  • Hospital visitation rights
  • Inheritance rights

It can be useful to work with a domestic partnership attorney. They can help determine the right course of action for you and your partner.

Why Does Common Law Marriage Matter in California?

Common law marriage matters to couples living in California because some of them might not realize they have legal rights typically only provided to married couples by the state. For example, a separating couple who met common law marriage requirements in another state before moving to California might have similar rights to that married spouses have while divorcing. This includes child supportspousal supportasset division, and other issues commonly associated with a divorce. It is important that couples know their rights and responsibilities during separation.

If you’re facing an issue involving common-law marriage in the state of California, Edgar & Dow is ready to help. Our attorneys are ready to help with the complexities of your situation and help you navigate any family law issues you might be experiencing.

When Is Common Law Marriage Recognized in California?

A common law marriage is recognized by the state of California if a couple has met the requirements for it in a state the recognizes it. If the couple moves to California after meeting the requirements for a common-law marriage, they are considered legally married in the state.

States that allow common law marriages as of 2024 include:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

Importantly, every state has unique laws about common-law marriage; they all have different requirements and some even only allow common-law marriage for certain circumstances. For example, New Hampshire only allows common-law marriage for matters involving inheritance.

The common requirements for common law marriage in other states include:

  • Partners live together for a set period of time.
  • Partners would be legally allowed to get married in the state.
  • Both partners intend to be married.
  • Partners each refer to each other as married in public.

If a couple meets these requirements in their state, they are considered legally married.

Rights of Unmarried Couples in California

Not every couple wishes to get legally married. Unmarried couples need to take certain steps to establish legal protections. These are protections automatically afforded to married couples. If an unmarried couple does not take the necessary legal precautions, one or both may find themselves completely unprotected in the event of separation or death. These rights include:

  • Property Rights: Only domestic partnerships and marriages automatically have joint ownership of property. Unmarried partners do not share property automatically. Rather, they must establish joint ownership or put both their names on property deeds.
  • Shared Finances: Unmarried couples must establish joint ownership of all accounts individually. Otherwise, if one partner dies, the other partner has no access or right to their bank accounts, credit cards, or retirement accounts.
  • Parental Rights: If a couple has children together, they must establish paternity to have equal rights and responsibilities for child support and custody. Parents who are unmarried must sign a voluntary declaration of parentage to establish themselves as a child’s legal parents.


Q: What Is the Law for Common Law Marriage in California?

A: California does not recognize common law marriages as legal marriages. In several states, common law marriage is a form of legally recognized marriage. In it, a couple lives together and acts as if they have been married for a certain number of years. California only recognizes traditional marriages and domestic partnerships. If a couple is married via common law in a state where it is legal, and then moves to California, they are considered legally married in California.

Q: What Rights Do Unmarried Couples Have in California?

A: California provides no automatic rights to unmarried couples like married couples receive. Every legal right that married couples have must be manually established if the couple is unmarried. Unmarried couples must also establish the paternity of their children. This allows their children to inherit property and assets. Unmarried couples also have to sign certain legal documents for access to medical documents and tax benefits that are automatically provided to married couples.

Q: What Is the 10-Year Rule in California?

A: The ten-year rule refers to whether a marriage is considered a long-term or short-term marriage. If a couple has been in a legally recognized marriage for ten years or longer, it is a long-term marriage. This only impacts a couple if they divorce. Divorcing couples who were married for ten years or longer generally have higher spousal support. They could also receive their ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits. However, spousal support is still not mandatory.

Q: When Did California Stop Recognizing Common Law Marriage?

A: California ended common law marriage in 1895. Couples cannot be considered legally married in California by cohabitating and considering themselves to be married. There are only seven states that recognize common law marriage as of 2024, plus the District of Columbia. California only recognizes common law marriages if a couple married under common law in another state moves there. Even so, the requirements for the marriage must still be met in a state where it is legal.

Working With the Edgar & Dow

If you and your partner are not legally married, you often have fewer legal protections. If one partner dies, the other has no automatic right to inheritance. During separation, couples do not have the right to spousal support. The non-biological parent will not even have the right to child custody if paternity is not established.

If you are unmarried or had a common-law marriage in another state, it is important to determine how to establish the necessary legal protections for you and your family. At the Edgar & Dow, we want to put your family first and protect you, your partner, and your children. Contact our firm today for any questions regarding unmarried couples’ rights.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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