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Serving Iowa Families Statewide

Does Common Law Provide Same Rights as Traditional Marriage?

The way the term is used so frequently in popular culture, you might think that common-law marriage is, well, common. In truth, the concept is not legally recognized by most U.S. states.

The nine states (along with Washington, D.C.) that currently recognize common law marriage are:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire (Inheritance Purposes Only)
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Utah

Protected Rights of Common-Law Couples

Common-law couples are afforded the same rights as traditionally married couples from tax breaks to inheritance. If one partner dies, the other has spousal rights to the decedent’s estate. Parties are also potentially eligible for spousal support, child support, child custody, and equitable property division should the couple go their separate ways. Children from a common-law marriage have the same rights as those from a legal traditional marriage.

An important element to understand is that the couple does not declare themselves married by common law. That determination is left to the courts. There is no common-law divorce in Iowa, or anywhere else. Should one person in the couple wish to sue for support or property when they break up, they would have to go through a traditional divorce. Before they can do that, they must prove their relationship was a common-law marriage and not simply living together. They would also have to prove the legal marriage if one partner dies and the other wants the spousal share of the inheritance.

Having an experienced attorney with extensive knowledge of common law is a must when you need to prove your relationship in court. Call our team at Hope Law Firm, (515) 305-2772, for more information about how we can protect your position.

What Is Common-Law Marriage?

There are several misconceptions about what constitutes a common-law marriage. One of the bigger fallacies is thinking that living together for a certain amount of time is the trigger for a common-law marriage. Others may think that referring to each other once as their spouse also does the trick. Not necessarily. Common-law marriage can be particularly tricky to prove. In a traditional marriage, a marriage certificate confirms the marriage. There is no such certificate for common law.

In Iowa, three requirements must be met for a couple to be considered married by common law:

  1. They must agree that they are married.
  2. They must live together continuously as spouses.
  3. They must present themselves publicly as a married couple.

What Is Not Common Law Marriage?

When considering the three requirements mentioned above, if only one half of the couple considers themselves married or refers to the other as a spouse, there is no common-law marriage. A court might also rule a relationship doesn’t reach the definition of married by common law if a couple lives together but maintains separate accounts, separate last names, and never refers to each other as their spouse in social settings or official documents like insurance policies.

A Judge Decides

Before anyone can exercise their rights as a common-law spouse, a court must first determine that the relationship meets the definition of a legal marriage by common law. In cases of inheritance, other family members could fight against the judgment. In cases of a relationship split, the other party could argue against it to protect their assets. Your partner’s family members may be attempting to exclude you from making medical decisions for your partner.

In these cases, a judge hears the testimony, evidence, and arguments from both sides. A judge will consider many factors such as whether they listed each other as spouses on insurance policies, whether they ever exchanged rings, or if they filed tax returns as a married couple, among other evidence. Based on what they learn, the judge decides if a common-law marriage exists.

Experience for Your Family Law Needs

Whether a common-law marriage exists is subject to interpretation. This uncertainty and doubt certainly make protecting your rights more challenging. Fortunately, Iowa law provides guidance on what evidence can be most convincing before the court.

Our legal professionals at Hope Law Firm can help you through the process of attempting to establish a marriage by common law. Once the relationship is confirmed, we can continue to guide you through the next steps, whether that is divorce or probate or another family law matter.

The first consultation is always free. Contact us through our online form or call (515) 305-2772. We have two convenient locations in Des Moines and West Des Moines.