Common Law Marriage: Did You Accidentally Get Married?

Common law marriages are based on an agreement between the parties, without any paperwork or a formal ceremony performed by a person vested with authority to perform marriages. In my practice, I have met a number of people who believed they were “common law married” in North Carolina. Some people have the mistaken notion that if a couple lives together for some period of time, then the relationship is magically transformed into a legally valid marriage. Each state has laws that list the specific requirements of a marriage.

North Carolina is one of many states that does not permit common law marriage. A couple might have lived together for many years and even held themselves out as “husband and wife” but unless they have undergone the legal requirements of marriage, they were not legally married in this state. No doubt this is great news to some clients, who thought they “accidentally” got married, but bad news to others. And speaking of accidental marriage, much to the dismay of some of those same people, there is no accidental divorce (i.e., common law divorce).

What About Common Law Marriage From Other States?

There are U.S. states that recognize common law marriage. Some of those states are Western states that historically had to make a “do it yourself” marriage available to residents because there was such a small population that ministers or magistrates did not live in a town or close to one. Most of the settlers living in the Western U.S. did not want to “live in sin” without the benefit of marriage, so common law marriage in the United States was born. If a couple is validly married in another state that recognizes common law marriage, only then will North Carolina give their marriage decree full faith and credit, recognizing it as a valid marriage.

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