What is California Common Law Marriage?

What is California common law marriage?  A common law marriage is where two people live together and behave as if they are married, but skip the formal ceremony and never file a legal certificate of marriage.  In some states, couples that meet their state’s requirements for common law marriage have similar legal rights and responsibilities as a couple that had a wedding ceremony and filed a marriage certificate, but California is not one of them.  California abolished common law marriage in 1896.  According to California Family Code §300 to be married in California, there must be a marriage license and solemnization (some kind of marriage ceremony).  Without a marriage license, a person has no claim to their partner’s assets and will not be able to make medical decisions for their significant other  (granting a power of attorney is a work around the latter).  So, it would seem the answer to the question “What is a California common law marriage?” is that it does not exist.  However, the actual answer to that question is a bit more complicated.

California Common Law Marriage Overview

What is California Common Law Marriage RequirementsCalifornia courts recognize common law marriage in certain situations.  This mainly happens when a couple moves to California from a state where common law marriage is legal, and once in California, they file for divorce.  So, what is California common marriage law?  California recognizes marriages performed in other states as valid, even if the state’s marriage requirements differ from those in California.  A couple who had a valid common law marriage in another state must meet certain conditions for a California court to grant a divorce.  The common law marriage must have been in a state that recognizes common law marriage.  There are currently ten jurisdictions that recognize common law marriage: Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia.

Common Law Marriage Requirements

States have different rules for common law marriage.  For example, some states require that the couple live together for a minimum amount of time before they are “common law married.”  The couple must have been holding themselves out as a married couple.  This could include a name change by one of the partners.  They must be filing joint tax returns.  Lastly, they must have a bona fide intent to marry.  If these conditions are met, a court may be willing to assist the couple with dividing community property and spousal support issues.  These are situations where a California court may recognize the common law marriage, but there is no guarantee that a California court will accept a common law marriage.  For example, if one partner claims common law marriage and the other claims they are not, a court could refuse to acknowledge the marriage.

Even if an unmarried couple does not meet the criteria for California to recognize their relationship as a common law marriage, one partner may be able to claim palimony if the couple splits.  Palimony is a portmanteau of “pal” and “alimony.”  The term was coined the 1977 case Marvin v. Marvin.  In that case, Michelle Marvin (she legally changed her name) sued her ex, actor Lee Marvin, claiming that she gave up her career to devote herself to him, and he in return promised he would take care of her.  The case was decided on contract law theory, and the court ruled that Michelle Marvin did not prove the existence of oral contract and that she was not entitled to palimony.  Since then, California courts have awarded palimony in certain situations, often under theory of contract law or some other legal theory.  For example, in 1994, a court in Orange County awarded Clare Maglica $84 million dollars in palimony after she split up from a long-term relationship.  In that case, she and her partner of over 20 years transformed a small business into a company valued at over $200 million.  Unfortunately, the company was titled in his name alone, but a jury found that she had been underpaid for years working at the company, so the award was part “palimony,” part back pay.

Cohabitating couples often own property together, and issues can get complicated when the couple breaks up or one of them passes away unexpectedly.  Without a will, a cohabitating partner has no claim to an estate.  Long-term cohabitating partners should consider estate planning to prepare for the future. Contact us at (858) 413-7980 for more information about our estate planning services. Also, cohabitating couples are free to enter into written agreements that outline any division of property in the event of a break-up.

Lastly, even if they are not legally married, cohabitating couples who split up may still seek child support consistent with California family laws.

California also recognizes putative marriages.  A putative marriage is a marriage that is invalid, but one spouse has a good faith belief that the marriage is valid.  This can happen if one spouse was still legally married to someone else at the time of the marriage (making the second marriage void).  A putative marriage can also be the of deliberate fraud, for example one spouse never files the marriage license.  In the case of a putative marriage, the court will treat the couple as married for the purposes of dividing community property and debts.  The innocent party is also entitled to spousal support, but the guilty party is not.  However, if the court determines there is a putative marriage, the court will divide the community property like they would for any other married party, and it is possible that the “innocent party” could end up in a worse financial situation than if there had never been a marriage in the first place.

What is California common law marriage is a question that seems simple.  It is not formally recognized, but there are several exceptions, and the exceptions can be complicated.

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