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Living Together Does Not Establish a Common-Law Marriage


Not all marriages begin with a walk down the aisle and a marriage license from the town clerk’s office.

Common-law marriage is a term used around the country, but most states do not recognize this type of marriage. It’s a myth that simply living together for seven years (or any amount of time) equates to a common-law union. The states that do recognize this form of marriage have specific qualifications that must be met. Rhode Island, one of the states that recognize common law, has particularly complicated and confusing requirements.

For those that qualify, common-law couples have the same rights as those joined in a ceremonial marriage.

States Recognizing Common-Law Marriage

Most states do not recognize the concept of common-law marriage. Those that do follow similar requirements to establish such a union. Some states confirm common law marriage through their statutes, while others do so through court decisions.

The common-law states are as follows:

  • Colorado (Statute)
  • Iowa (Statute)
  • Kansas (Statute)
  • Montana (Statute)
  • New Hampshire (Statute)
  • Oklahoma (Court)
  • Rhode Island (Court)
  • Texas (Statute)
  • Utah (Statute)

The District of Columbia also permits common-law marriages.

Some states, like New Hampshire, only recognize common-law marriage for estate purposes. There are no rights as a married couple while both are living. When one person in a couple dies, then the surviving “spouse” can claim inheritance.

Qualifying for Common-Law Marriage in Rhode Island

Living together and sharing your finances isn’t enough to establish a common-law marriage in Rhode Island. State statutes do not formalize this nontraditional marriage. The Rhode Island Supreme Court created the standards through case law. Common-law marriage is only for couples in a romantic relationship and does not apply to people who are friends.

Establishing a common-law marriage in Rhode Island requires the following:

  • Both spouses share a serious intent to enter into a spousal relationship. They must consider themselves married.
  • They need to be living together for a significant period of time.
  • Friends, family, and colleagues consider them a married couple.
  • Both spouses conduct themselves in a way that the community believes they are married.

Using the same last name, owning a home together, filing joint tax returns, and referring to each other as their spouse can be evidence for common-law marriage.

Rights of Common-Law Spouses

The need to establish a common-law marriage is generally only necessary when there is a legal dispute. This can be when one partner wants to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, seeks to inherit from a deceased partner, or asks for property or support in cases when the relationship falls apart.

Common-law marriage is no less valid than a ceremonial marriage. The dissolution of a common-law marriage goes through the same divorce process as otherwise married couples. Common-law spouses can ask for child custody, child support, alimony, and property.

Future of Common-Law Marriage in Rhode Island

With Rhode Island’s basis for common-law marriage found in court decisions, a 2018 decision has put the concept in jeopardy. The court case involved a couple that had been together for 23 years, Angela Luis and Kevin Gaugler.

When the relationship disintegrated, Angela wanted a legal divorce with the relationship recognized as a common-law marriage. She argued that not only did they act like a married couple, but their friends also all thought they were. He argued otherwise. The family court ruled in her favor. Gaugler appealed, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court made clear that very substantial evidence will be required to establish a common law marriage.

Apply for Common-Law Marriage

If there is a current legal issue – or one is on the horizon – that requires your relationship to be recognized as a common-law marriage, contact one of our seasoned attorneys to discuss your case.

The attorneys at McIntyre Tate LLP bring extensive knowledge and compassion to each family law case we take. Their experience is particularly vital in complicated Rhode Island family law cases like common-law marriage.

Learn about the rights of a common-law marriage in a free initial consultation. Schedule by calling (401) 351-7700.

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