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A Short Introduction to Informal & Common Law Marriage

Published Monday, Jan. 9th, 2023

Answers to frequently asked questions about common law marriage, with advice for wedding officiants 



Most couples in the U.S. get married by applying for a marriage license, holding a ceremony with a wedding officiant to solemnize their union, and then returning the completed license to the clerk’s office. 


Related: An Introduction to the Marriage License


But not all marriages are entered into in this formal way. That’s where ‘common-law’ marriage comes into play, sometimes called informal marriage.


Below, we unpack some common questions about common law marriage to help you gain a better understanding of what this type of marriage is and how it’s formed. 


Keep in mind that this article isn’t legal advice. It’s intended as a simple introduction to the practice of informal marriage. We aren’t lawyers – AMM is an online church that provides free ordination, advocacy, and training for our ministers to ensure that all people have the right to get married and to perform marriage. (And we love what we do!



If you have specific legal questions about common law marriage, please talk to an attorney or legal service, or reach out to a court clerk’s office in your area. 


Related: Can you get married without a marriage license? What if you lost it? Or forgot it?


A happy older couple smile and laugh together, laying in the grass, the woman wears a wedding ring and holds flowers up by her face

Only a few states allow common-law marriage.



Common Questions about Common Law Marriage



1. What is common law marriage? 


Common law marriage is sometimes called ‘informal marriage’ or ‘non-ceremonial marriage’ because it’s a type of marriage that’s formed between two people without a marriage license or marriage ceremony. 


Common law marriages are only recognized in a few states. Each of those states has its own legal requirements for establishing a common law marriage, including minimum age to marry, guidelines for cohabitation, if an agreement was made, if the couple ‘hold out’ to others that they’re married, and more.


Once a common law marriage is legally established, it’s generally treated the same way as a ceremonial marriage. 

Related: How to get married TO someone you love, BY someone you love


2. Which states recognize common law marriages? 


Currently, 8 states recognize common law marriage:


Colorado: § 14-2-109.5
Iowa: At court’s discretion
Kansas: § 23-2502 
Montana: § 40-1-403
New Hampshire: § 457:39
Texas: § 2.401
Utah: With judicial approval (via Utah State Courts)
South Carolina* : Only marriages prior to July, 2019;  § 20-1-360 


Rhode Island sometimes recognizes common law marriage using case law, although there's no statute that directly allows it. Recently, legislators there have tried to end the practice for good. For more details, read: Will Rhode Island abolish common law marriage?


*A 2019 ruling by the SC Supreme Court (Stone v. Thompson) prevents new common law marriages from being formed, but common law marriages established before July 24, 2019 will be honored. 



3. How long do you have to live together for your relationship to be considered a common law marriage? 


It’s a common misconception that couples are considered married after 7 years of living together – but this is a myth. You aren’t common-law married just because you live together, even if it’s been years. 


In fact, most common law states have no minimum time requirements for living together. Length of cohabitation may be considered, but several other criteria are weighed to determine a couple’s marital status.



A happy married couple pose together outdoors

Celebrate your commitment with a commitment ceremony or vow renewal ceremony.


4. Can you have a wedding ceremony for a common law marriage? 


You can certainly celebrate your commitment with a ceremony if you’d like to! 


Without a marriage license, this type of ceremony would be called a ‘commitment ceremony’ or ‘vow renewal,’ rather than a traditional marriage ceremony or wedding. These ceremonies are not legally binding, but they can be a great way to share your commitment with friends and family.


The following articles can help you get started: 






5. Can you register an informal marriage to make it formal? 


If you’re in an informal marriage and want to make it formal, check to see if your state offers registration or declaration of informal marriage paperwork. Some states have provisions for this. For example, Texas offers a Registration of Informal Marriage form (Form H1057), and in Montana, couples can file a Declaration of Marriage Without Solemnization form to establish marriage.  


Then, follow the paperwork with a fun reception party or ask a friend to officiate a ‘sequel wedding,’ handfasting, or vow renewal ceremony!


For inspiration, check out the following articles:




6. What do wedding officiants need to know about common law marriages? 


Common law marriages are entered into informally, without a marriage license or solemnization by a minister or other officiant. This means that for the most part, wedding officiants won’t encounter common law marriages very often. 


If you’re asked to officiate a ‘marriage recognition’ ceremony for common law spouses, it’s probably best to treat it as you would a commitment ceremony or vow renewal ceremony (avoiding words like ‘marriage’). 


Keep in mind that in some states, wedding officiants can be fined or face other legal repercussions for performing a marriage ceremony without a valid marriage license presented by the couple. Commitment ceremonies and vow renewals don’t run this risk, however.


Related: No marriage license, no marriage… but maybe a misdemeanor?



Happy wives kissing outdoors, holding hands

Some common law states allow couples to file paperwork to formalize an informal marriage.




General Disclaimer: The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials presented in this article, and on this site are for general informational purposes only. Please consult our General Disclaimer for more details on the information published on AMM’s website. 




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Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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