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Common Law Marriages in California

Common Law Marriage

Although most people have heard the term common law marriage, many may not know what is required to enter into such marriages.

Only a minority of the states recognize common law marriages. In the states that do, such marriages are formed when couples cohabit for a certain period of time (which varies by the state) and hold themselves out to others as being married, despite never having gone through a formal ceremony. The most important thing is the intent between the couple involved to in a marital relationship. Of course, each person must also be of a legal age to consent to marry, be of sound mind, not be married to somebody else already, and not be closely related.

California's Marriage Laws

California is not a state that recognizes common law marriages formed within the state. Nonetheless, because of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution (i.e., Article IV, Section 1) if a valid common law marriage is formed between a couple while in a state that recognizes such, and that couple then moves to California, California must recognize the validity of such marriage, the same as any other marriage.

Putative Spouses

Although California does not recognize common law marriages formed in California, it does have the concept of "putative spouse," which can look a lot like common-law marriage. Basically, a putative marriage is a marriage that both parties believed, in good faith, to be valid. Usually, this happens when a couple solemnizes the marriage through a ceremony, but didn't complete the steps to get a perfect a marriage certificate/license.

Note: this requires "good faith" on behalf of one or both of the parties. Thus, a person who knew his or her marriage was invalid at the time of entering into it, or who lacked a good-faith belief in the validity of the marriage cannot qualify as a putative spouse.

A finding that one or both parties may be a "putative spouse" may affect various legal rights such as the following:

1) the right to payment of support by the other party after the relationship ends;

2) the right to share in properly accumulated during the "putative marriage" on the death of the other party;

3) the right to share in properly accumulated during the "putative marriage" after the relationship ends;

4) standing to sue for the wrongful death of one's "putative spouse;" and

5) the right to recover state workers' compensation benefits of the "putative spouse" after their death.


California also has laws governing treatment of two parties who are or have cohabitated. The rights that arise from cohabitation stem from contract law, including "quasi-contractual" relationships stemming from detrimental reliance, etc.


Like all laws, the above concepts can get confusing when applied to complex facts. When in doubt, it might be best to consult an attorney if unsure of your particular situation. Don't hesitate to contact us with any questions.


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