does california have common law marriage

Does California Have Common Law Marriage? A Guide for Beginners

If you live in California and have a long-term relationship with your partner, you might wonder if you are considered married under the law. This is especially relevant if you want to enjoy the benefits and rights of marriage, such as filing joint taxes, inheriting property, or making medical decisions for each other. 

You might have heard of the term “common law marriage”, which refers to a marriage recognized by some states without a formal ceremony or license. But does California have common law marriage? And if not, what are your options to protect your relationship and assets? 

In this blog post, we will answer these questions and more simply and conversationally. We will explain common law marriage, how it works in different states, why California does not have it, and what alternatives you can consider. By the end of this post, you will better understand your legal status and rights as a couple in California.

What is Common Law Marriage? Does California have common law marriage? 

Common law marriage is a legal concept that allows a couple to be considered married without going through the formalities of a civil or religious ceremony, or obtaining a marriage license. Common law marriage is based on the idea that the couple’s actions and intentions show they are committed to each other and want to be treated as spouses.

However, common law marriage is not as simple as living together for a certain period. Most states that recognize common law marriage have specific requirements that the couple must meet to be considered married. These requirements may include:

– Living together continuously and exclusively for a minimum period, usually between one and seven years, depending on the state.

– Holding themselves out to the public as a married couple, such as by using the same last name, introducing each other as husband and wife, wearing wedding rings, or filing joint tax returns.

– Having the capacity and consent to marry means they are both of legal age, mentally competent, not already married to someone else, and not related by blood.

– Having a mutual and present intent to be married, meaning that they both agree and intend to be married at present, not just in the future.

If a couple meets these requirements, they may be able to claim the benefits and rights of marriage, such as spousal support, property division, inheritance, social security, health insurance, and parental rights. However, they may also face the same obligations and responsibilities of marriage, such as fidelity, financial support, and liability for debts. Additionally, they may have to go through a formal divorce process if they want to end their relationship.

How Many States Recognize Common Law Marriage?

The federal government does not recognize common law marriage, but by individual states. However, not all states recognize common law marriage, and those that do may have different rules and criteria. As of 2021, only nine states and the District of Columbia recognize common law marriage:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire (only for inheritance purposes)
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • District of Columbia

Some other states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah, used to recognize common law marriage, but have abolished it for new couples. However, they may still recognize common law marriages established before a certain date, usually in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Why Does California Not Have Common Law Marriage?

California is one of the states that does not recognize common law marriage, regardless of how long a couple has lived together or how they present themselves to others. This means that couples who live together in California without a marriage license or ceremony are not considered married under the law, and do not have the same rights and obligations as married couples.

California does not have common law marriage because the state legislature abolished it in 1895, in response to a series of court cases that challenged the validity of common law marriages. The legislature wanted to avoid confusion and inconsistency in couples’ legal status and promote the formal and public recognition of marriage as a social institution.

Since then, California has maintained its position that marriage is a legal contract that requires a license and a ceremony, and that common law marriage is not compatible with the state’s public policy and interest. The California Supreme Court has affirmed this view in several cases, such as In re Marriage of Smyklo (1979), Marvin v. Marvin (1976), and Estate of Abbie (1905).

What Are the Alternatives to Common Law Marriage in California?

If you live in California and want to protect your relationship and assets without getting married, you have some alternatives to consider. These alternatives may not give you the same benefits and rights as marriage, but they may offer you some legal recognition and protection. Here are some of the most common alternatives to common law marriage in California:

– Domestic partnership: A domestic partnership is a legal relationship granting some of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage to couples registering with the state. Domestic partnerships are available to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples over the age of 62. Domestic partnerships’ benefits include health care coverage, hospital visitation, family leave, inheritance, and tax benefits. However, domestic partnerships do not provide the same federal benefits as marriage, such as social security, immigration, and military benefits.

– Cohabitation agreement: A cohabitation agreement is a written contract that outlines the rights and obligations of a couple living together without marriage. A cohabitation agreement can cover various aspects of the relationship, such as property ownership, financial arrangements, household responsibilities, and child custody. A cohabitation agreement can help the couple avoid disputes and litigation in case of separation or death, and can also serve as evidence of the couple’s intent and expectations. However, a cohabitation agreement may not be enforceable if it violates public policy or the law, such as by promoting sexual relations outside of marriage, or by waiving the right to child support.

– Palimony: Palimony is a term that refers to the financial support that one partner may claim from another after the end of a non-marital relationship. Palimony is not a legal right, but a potential remedy that may be granted by a court based on the principles of contract law or equity. Palimony may be awarded if the court finds an express or implied agreement between the partners to share their income and assets, or to support each other financially. Palimony may also be awarded if the court finds that the other’s contributions unjustly enriched one partner, or that one partner sacrificed their career or education for the benefit of the other.


To conclude, does california have common law marriage? It is stated that Common law marriage is recognized by some states without a formal ceremony or license, but not by California. If you live in California and want to enjoy the benefits and rights of marriage, you must get married through the official process. If you do not want to get married, but still want to protect your relationship and assets, you may consider some alternatives, such as domestic partnership, cohabitation agreement, or palimony. However, these alternatives may not give you the same level of protection and recognition as marriage, and may involve some legal risks and challenges. Therefore, it is advisable to consult a lawyer before entering or ending any of these arrangements.

We hope this blog post has helped you understand the concept of common law marriage and its implications for California residents. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Thank you for reading!