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What is a Common Law Wife?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A common law wife is a woman who is married under common law to another person, and is recognized as being part of a common law marriage. Various countries and regions within them have laws dealing with marriage and whether or not common law marriages can be recognized. A common law wife may change her name if she so desires, though she may have to receive a court order for her name change to be fully recognized by government agencies and certain private businesses.

Common law marriage, of which a common law wife would be a part, is the process by which two people can be married without a legal or religious proceeding and without filing papers with local government recognizing the marriage. Different countries and regions within a country can have very different laws regarding common law marriage and the way in which it can be performed and accepted. In Australia, for example, a common law marriage is typically referred to as a “de facto relationship” or “domestic relationship” and the legality and requirements for such a marriage depend on the laws of each territory.

Canada similarly establishes the requirements for a person to become a common law wife based on each province. Quebec, for example, does not recognize any sort of common law marriage, however, many laws regarding married couples also stipulate how they can apply to “de facto unions” as well. In British Columbia, on the other hand, a woman who has lived with a partner in a relationship for more than two years can be considered a common law wife by the laws of the “Estate Administration Act.”

Different states within the United States have individual laws regarding common law marriage, and most states do not recognize the rights of a common law wife. Only a handful of states, including Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Alabama allow common law marriage, while many other states either have never recognized common law marriages or no longer do so. Some states have made recent changes and only recognize common law marriages prior to certain dates, such as Ohio, which only recognizes common law marriages prior to 10 November 1991.

While different states may define the process to become a common law wife differently, the typical requirements are for a couple to live together for an extensive period of time, though this period is seldom specified, and act as though they are married. This typically includes referring to each other as “husband” or “wife,” as well as filing a joint tax return. Though many states recognize name changes through usage, allowing a common law wife to easily take her partner’s name, most government agencies and businesses such as banks may require a court order to officially recognize a new name.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Jan 26, 2015

@bythewell - A lot of countries also use common law marriages as a stand-in legally for people who can't or won't get married, so it's honestly a good thing for them to get legal protection, particularly if there are children involved. These protections aren't just there for divorce or separation, they also help protect people while they are together, in the event of misfortune.

By bythewell — On Jan 25, 2015

@irontoenail - The problem with common law relationships is that often if they aren't protected by law it means that one of the partners gets stuck, especially if they are a homemaker and don't have their own property or job. This used to be more of a problem back when it was less common for women to work, but it still happens a lot.

It's a lot easier to threaten and abuse someone if they have nowhere to go and no assets of their own to use if they break up with you. It's unfortunate that sometimes the law might get used the wrong way, but it is possible for people to write the equivalent of a pre-nup for this kind of union as well, so that their assets are protected in the long run.

By irontoenail — On Jan 24, 2015

One of my relatives lives in New Zealand and she actually almost ran into a lot of trouble because of the common marriage laws over there. She had been living with a guy for almost two years and after twenty-four months that meant that legally they had to obey de facto marriage laws. She actually earned more than him and had some money invested and things like that, so technically, after they had been together for that amount of time, if they broke up, she would have to give him half of everything.

They broke up right before the deadline and he turned out to be a real jerk about money and other issues, so if they had broken up after the deadline it was almost certain that he would have tried to take everything he could get, whether he deserved it or not.

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