You’ve probably heard that if a couple lives together for – fill in the blank – number of years they are, in effect, legally married in the eyes of the state. Some people think a common-law marriage magically begins after seven years together, others believe it’s 10 years.
I’m here to tell you that’s baloney.
I’m certainly no Ann Landers. She had vastly more experience giving personal advice but if you think living with someone without actually being married protects you in the eyes of the law you are sadly mistaken. If you’re looking for long-term stability — get married.
For years now states have been doing away with laws recognizing common-law marriage and none ever set forth a certain number of years of cohabitation that equaled legal marriage. No one seems to know where that seven or 10 year idea came from. Just an urban myth.
The Census Bureau reports that in 2015 there were more than 8 million unmarried couple households in the U.S.. That’s 16 million people living without the shield of laws that are decidedly written to protect those who entered into lawfully wedded matrimony.
If you are one of the 16 million people, consider this: if you are married you are automatically eligible to share in your spouse’s car, home (or renter’s) and health insurance coverage. If you are married and your spouse dies you inherit all bank accounts, investments and real estate unless a Last Will and Testament bequeaths it to others. Those left widowed qualify to receive Social Security survivor benefits and oftentimes any pension left behind. Married couples also enjoy major federal and state tax breaks. If you are not legally married, you are not entitled to any of this with a couple of minor exceptions described below.
If you are cohabiting with someone and they suddenly die if your name is not on the lease or mortgage you have no legal protection if you want to continue to live there. That is unless you happen to live in one of the few states that still recognizes common-law marriage.
There are less than a dozen of them: Colorado, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. And unmarried couples must meet certain criteria to be considered as being in a common-law union. According to Nolo.com, an online legal encyclopedia for consumers, the couples must present themselves to the community as a married couple. Typically, using the same last name, referring to each other as “my husband” and “my wife” and filing a joint tax return.
New Hampshire recognizes common-law marriage for inheritance purposes only. The state of Kentucky, only for the purpose of awarding worker’s compensation benefits. And a handful of other states that eliminated common law marriage — Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania – recognize the rights of unmarried couples only if they began cohabiting before such unions were abolished there. Starting next year Alabama joins this category.
I know, when you’re young and in love who needs a piece of paper from the state saying you’re married, right? And after a few years legal marriage seems like an unnecessary step. Well, the honest answer is — everyone needs that piece of paper if they want to have a more comfortable financial future should their partner die or break up with them.
Take the case of Angela Luis and Kevin Gaugler of East Providence, Rhode Island where common-law marriages are recognized. They lived together in the same home for 23 years and never married. Kevin, reportedly, strayed with a local female bartender and Angela indicated it wasn’t his first peccadillo. In court, she insisted theirs was, for all intents and purposes, a marriage. He insisted it was only a “roommate” arrangement.
The couple spent a year-and-a-half in court during which time Angela presented evidence that she had gotten an engagement ring, they called each other husband and wife and had always shared living expenses. She was on his health insurance and he named her sole beneficiary in his will. Even though they never had a joint bank account or tax return the judge ruled in Angela’s favor. Kevin, appealed the June 2016 decision which split the couple’s joint assets including the proceeds from the sale of their home and Kevin’s retirement accounts.
Their years long saga will continue because they were never legally married. A marriage certificate would have made all the difference.
So, simply living with a partner is up to you. Just realize after you throw your lot in with him or her you likely have no legal protection if you aren’t married. Just thought you might want to know.