How Common Law Marriage Works and Its Future in the State
Most traditional marriages involve both some sort of celebratory ceremony with loved ones as well as legitimizing the union with a formal marriage license. This involves the willful, active participation of both parties to cement the relationship in the eyes of their peers and the law.
Sometimes, couples do not go through the usual steps of formalizing a marriage. It can be sometimes easy to forget that marriage is as much a legal relationship as it is a personal one, so not taking the steps to define a relationship can result in gray areas should disputes arise down the line.
Rhode Island is one of the few states that still recognizes common law marriages, or marriages that are not officially registered or otherwise formally established. Many myths surround what constitutes a common law marriage, and recent state court decisions has put its future legal legitimacy in doubt. Below, we break down what qualifies as a common law marriage and where the state currently stands on the subject.
How Marriage in Rhode Island Typically Works
Rhode Island has fairly relaxed requirements for traditional, indisputably recognized marriages. There is no state-mandated waiting period, for example. Some individual counties may have more specific or stringent requirements.
A typical traditional marriage in Rhode Island requires the following conditions:
- Both parties must be 18-years old
- Both parties must have proof of both their birth facts and identification, typically in the form of a copy of their birth certificate as well as another government-issued ID
- Parties must pay the marriage license fee after they have verified the documents with the marriage office
- The marriage license signing must take place in the presence of two legal adult witnesses
As long as those conditions are met, the mechanics of getting married in Rhode Island are fairly simple. You visit your local marriage office, bring the proper IDs and witnesses, and, once the license is signed, you have a legally recognized marriage.
How Common Law Marriage Differs and Why the Distinction Matters
Many people believe “common law marriage” automatically triggers when two romantically involved individuals, or at least those who assume husband-wife roles, live together for more than 7 years. This is not accurate, or at least it is no longer sufficient in “proving” a common law marriage exists in Rhode Island.
The basic idea behind common law marriage is a relationship can become legally recognized even if the parties involved never formally sought or were granted a legal marriage. While this may initially seem like an issue of symbolism, whether two individuals are considered married can dramatically impact numerous legal proceedings, including a separation (are those in a common law marriage entitled to divorce and its consequences?) or a death (is the surviving spouse in a common law marriage considered an heir?).
If legally recognized, a common law marriage entitles the individuals to the same legal benefits and consequences to a traditional marriage. For this reason, whether someone is in a common law marriage often comes up when someone passes away or when a separation occurs, especially if children are involved.
How to Establish if a Partnership is a Common Law Marriage
Proving a common law marriage is not easy, and you should never assume two individuals have one, even if they have lived together for a decade or more. Common law marriage is a murky gray area, legally speaking, and often requires interpretation and discretion of a judge when forced to evaluate whether one exists.
A common law marriage must meet the following conditions to be potentially recognized in Rhode Island:
- Both parties must demonstrate a serious intent to lead a husband-wife (or husband-husband, wife-wife) relationship
- Neither party may be married to another person
- The parties’ behavior must lead the community to believe they are married
Believe it or not, whether the individuals live together is often not the deciding factor. While it can be an important supporting factor, common law marriage can be established without cohabitation.
The key here is both the individuals themselves and the community they interact with must both believe they are behaving in such a way consistent with how a married couple would behave. In other words, they are a married couple in every way except for the actual license.
Some factors that would support a common law marriage include:
- The parties have children together
- The parties live together (though this is not necessarily a requirement)
- The parties wear wedding rings or bands
- The parties file their taxes jointly under marital status
- The parties have joint bank accounts, loans, or other economic partnerships
- The parties tell friends and acquaintances they are married or held an informal marriage ceremony
No one single factor is typically enough to legally support a common law marriage, but multiple factors together can build a case for one. A good litmus test is to consider if a stranger encountering the couple – say, a judge or a lawyer evaluating their case – would presume they are married.
Contrary to the myth about living with a partner for a certain amount of years, a common law marriage can theoretically be established extremely quickly. Say two individuals experience a whirlwind romance. One month after meeting, they decide they are going to get “married.” They announce their engagement to their loved ones and exchange wedding bands – they even hire a photographer for a romantic photoshoot. They then hold a party where they declare their love for one another and declare they are married in the presence of friends and family, despite the fact no marriage license was ever sought or signed. Soon after, they open a joint bank account and move in together.
The friends and family at that gathering probably assume they are married. A Rhode Island court may potentially agree, deciding the individuals have a common law marriage.
Conversely, you could have two individuals who have lived together for 10 years. They do not wear wedding rings, do not appear to be romantically engaged, and only share a joint bank account and the lease for their home. They file taxes separately. Some friends did not realize they lived together and never assumed any romantic inclinations. A Rhode Island court is probably more likely to rule against any claims of a common law marriage.
How Common Law Marriage is Changing in Rhode Island
While Rhode Island remains one of only 11 states in the country to recognize common law marriage, it has become clear through recent decisions that the courts do not like the practice and would prefer to see it abolished. It is important to note that recognition of common law marriage is not actually codified and is merely a product of a case law decision from the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
In the recent case of Luis v Gaugler, a couple who had spent more than 23 years together separated. Angela Luis argued they acted like a married couple – their friends certainly thought so – and she was thus entitled to a legal divorce. Kevin Gaugler argued otherwise, claiming no marriage existed, and, consequently, Luis was entitled to nothing. A Rhode Island family court decided after much scrutiny that a common law marriage did in fact exist.
However, Gaugler appealed the decision, and in 2018, the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s determination. Not only did a common law marriage not exist, the Court explicitly asked the Rhode Island Legislature to overturn the practice. This is not the first time they have done so.
The result is common law marriage’s future in Rhode Island appears to be in doubt. Even if you were to potentially convince a Family Court that a common law marriage exists, an appeal could result in the decision being struck down. It is also possible that the Rhode Island Legislature may formally eliminate the practice altogether in a future session. For now, common law marriage remains technically legal in the state, though it appears to be living on borrowed time.
We Can Help You with Family Law Matters
If you are experiencing a problem stemming from an alleged common law marriage, whether it be a probate conflict or a divorce, I want to help. I am an experienced attorney who practices in numerous areas of the law, including probate and family law, and can fight for your rights in court. My firm, the Law Office of Steven J. Hart, has assisted many Rhode Island clients resolve family clients, and I am prepared to do everything in my power to get you the results you deserve.
Do not wait to get help with a common law marriage dispute. Call (888) 701-0919 or contact my team online today.