What is a common law marriage? Well, this may surprise you:
Common law marriage, sometimes (incorrectly) spelled with a hyphen and also known as sui juris marriage, informal marriage or marriage by habit and repute; is an irregular form of marriage that can be legally contracted in an extremely limited number of jurisdictions and is universally recognized as a valid marriage.
Common law marriage should not be confused with non-marital relationship contracts, which involves two people living together without holding themselves out to the world as spouses and/or without legal recognition as spouses in the jurisdiction where the contract was formed. Non-marital relationship contracts are not necessarily recognized from one jurisdiction to another whereas common law marriages are, by definition, legally valid marriages worldwide – provided the parties complied with the requirements to form a valid marriage while living in a jurisdiction that still allows this irregular form of marriage to be contracted – as was historically the case under the common law of England (hence the name, “common law marriage”).
Please notice that “common law” marriage is part of the heritage of this country, inherited from England. In fact, if you read the history of various parts of the USA, particularly those parts which were still being settled, it was “common” for couples to begin living with each other as husband and wife. Their relationship would only be “regularized” when a wandering preacher came through or when finally the legal framework of our country managed to extend itself to that part of the country. There are two things that are important to note about a common-law marriage. One is that the couple had to be claiming to be married. The second is that the couple was then recognized as married (and still is) in every State of the Union, as well as countries which have a heritage of English common-law.
Are there any States which still allow a common law marriage to be contracted in their State? Yes, as a matter of fact, they are the District of Columbia and ten states: Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, and Texas. Please note, when I say contract, I mean just that. I am not talking about the rights of cohabiting couples. Various states have “recognized” rights ever since the palimony court cases of several decades ago. Rather, these are States that recognize common law marriage as a fully legal marriage. That is, after the couple begins to live together and presents themselves as a married couple, the State considers them married with all rights, responsibilities, and privileges. This also makes their marriage recognized in all 50 States.
I mention this because common law marriage, though looked down upon, was ultimately looked upon as an ethical and moral marriage. Neither legally, nor in the churches, was it considered as cohabitation. Mind you, in the churches that couple might need to take some time to be accepted, but ultimately the couple would be accepted in the churches. I say might, because of what I said earlier. If you remember, I commented that in the time of the settlers, it was not unusual for couples to initiate a common law marriage until such a time as either a preacher came by or the law expanded out to where they were. Those marriages were accepted immediately by the local community.
I am making no particular point. It is simply interesting to note that there was a time when both the State and the majority of the churches of this country accepted alternate ways of being recognized as a married couple, other than going before a justice of the peace or passing through a church marriage ceremony. But, do carefully note that this was (and is) not considered cohabitation. It was (and is) an alternate form of becoming married. It is a way that is not acceptable to those churches that consider marriage a sacrament, but …