What is a Common Law Relationship?

Alex Tree

A common law relationship, also known as a common law marriage or marriage by habit and repute, is a marriage that is legally recognized even though no contract was signed or ceremony was held. Canada, the United States, and Australia are some countries that recognize common law relationships. The rights, benefits, and requirements of a common law relationship differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some places, the common law couple does not gain any special rights or the marriage is not legally recognized at all. Occasionally, the term common law marriage is used casually to refer to people in a relationship who live together, even though they might not meet the requirements of a common law relationship.

Common law relationships can allow same-sex couples to get married, even though they cannot legally do so through a ceremonial marriage.
Common law relationships can allow same-sex couples to get married, even though they cannot legally do so through a ceremonial marriage.

While the requirements to prove the existence of a common law relationship vary considerably from region to region, a few requirements are reasonably consistent. There usually must be a display of intent to be in this type of permanent relationship, and both members must have the legal capacity to enter into such an agreement. Common signs of this intent may be cohabitation and interacting with the community as a couple. In the United States, for example, the display of wedding rings and using the same last name are often considered to be an important way to display the intent of being in a common law relationship.

Being married by common law sometimes gives the couple certain rights or benefits. In some jurisdictions, the couple has the same rights as people who married via contract and ceremony, and in other jurisdictions they have no more rights than any individual person. These rights can grant the common law wife or husband the ability to make important medical decisions concerning the significant other. In addition, a legally recognized common law relationship may influence who becomes the guardian of any children if the relationship dissolves. Common law relationships can also enable the couple to file income taxes together or allow same-sex couples to get married even though they legally cannot through a ceremonial marriage.

The process of getting a common law divorce differs between jurisdictions. In some places, such as in certain regions of the United States, the marriage must be dissolved in court after filing the same paperwork that is filed when dissolving ceremonial marriages. Most other jurisdictions simply require the two people to not live together for a period of months or years before their common law marriage is considered dissolved.

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