What is a common law marriage and how is it different from legal marriage?

When it comes to understanding common law marriages, there are a lot of misconceptions out there. You may have heard that a couple living together for 7 years or longer are automatically common law spouses, but this is a false. You could be with someone for only 7 minutes and still bind yourself in a Common Law marriage. It is not the length of time parties are together the matters, but the intention of the parties as to the nature of their relationship.

Each State has different laws relative to Common Law Marriage. In fact, only 15 states recognize a common-law union, and Rhode Island is one of them. States choose to recognize common law marriages for various reasons, such as ensuring that no one is excluded from marriage for financial reasons or the belief that people should have the option to marry without government involvement.

A common law marriage is one created through the conduct and relationship of the couple. Common law marriage does not require that the couple have a ceremony led by a justice of the peace, or that they obtain a marriage license but it does require a specific meeting of the minds between spouses to consider themselves spouses. Just like in a traditional marriage granted through a ceremony, you should be able to identify a specific marriage or anniversary date.

While the state of Rhode Island does recognize common law marriage, there are some exceptions. For example, families moving to Rhode Island from a state where common law marriage is not recognized may not meet the criteria for a common law marriage under Rhode Island law. Additionally, the criteria in another State may not be as strict as Rhode Island, so that while you may have formed a common Law marriage in another State, it may not be recognized here. In those circumstances, we will need to determine if the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution applies. If you believe you have further questions about any of the above, feel free to give our office a call for additional information.