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Is California A Common Law Marriage State?

In navigating the complexities of relationships and marriage laws for clients, the team at Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC often gets asked whether California recognizes common law marriages.  It's a topic surrounded by myths and misconceptions, especially for couples moving into California.

It is important to understand the state’s stance on common law marriage because it affects a wide array of legal issues, from support and divorce to inheritance and probate. Let's delve into what the law says and how it affects couples in the Golden State.

California and Common Law Marriage

First off, it's important to clarify that California does not allow couples to form a common law marriage in the state. Unlike some states where couples can be considered legally married without a formal ceremony or marriage license after living together for a certain period, California law does not provide for this. This distinction is crucial for couples who have lived together for many years, assuming they have the same rights as married couples. Here are some key points to understand about the legal landscape in California regarding common law marriage and cohabitation:

  • No Legal Status for Common Law Marriage: In California, no matter how long a couple has lived together, their relationship does not gain the legal status of marriage without a marriage license and ceremony. This means that common law spouses do not have the rights and protections that are automatically granted to legally married couples under California law.
  • Exception for Valid Out-of-State Common Law Marriages: While California itself does not allow couples to establish a common law marriage, it does recognize common law marriages that were established in other states where such unions are recognized. If you and your partner were considered legally married by common law in another state, California law will acknowledge your marital status.
  • Implications for Property and Estate Planning: Since there is no recognition of common law marriage, unmarried couples must be proactive in managing their property rights and estate planning. This includes drafting cohabitation agreements, creating joint or co-owned property agreements, and ensuring proper estate planning documents like wills and trusts are in place to protect each party's interests. Otherwise, their property interests are legally separate, regardless of how long a couple has lived together.
  • Consideration of Palimony: While not related to common law marriage, it's worth noting that California courts have recognized the concept of "palimony" under Marvin claims (based on the case of Marvin v. Marvin, 1976). This refers to financial support one partner may be required to pay the other after a non-marital relationship ends, but it's not automatic and depends on the existence of an agreement or promise between the partners.
  • Cohabitation Rights and Responsibilities: Couples living together in California should be aware that their cohabitation does not automatically grant them rights to each other's property or assets acquired during the relationship, unlike in a legal marriage. It's advisable for cohabitating partners to consider legal agreements that clarify the ownership and division of property and financial assets.

Property Rights and Cohabitation in California

So, what does this mean for property rights and financial support? In California, the division of property for couples who are not formally married is governed by principles of contract law rather than family law. This means if you're in a long-term relationship but not legally married, how property is divided upon separation depends on the agreements (written or verbal) made during the relationship.

Protecting Your Rights Without Marriage

  • Cohabitation Agreements: Similar to prenuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements can outline the ownership and division of property should the relationship end. It's a wise step for protecting assets and clarifying financial responsibilities.
  • Joint Purchases: For property bought together, ensure both names are on the title. This clarifies ownership and simplifies division if necessary.
  • Estate Planning: Without the automatic rights granted to spouses, estate planning becomes even more critical. Wills, trusts, and healthcare directives can ensure your partner is protected.

Couples can also register as domestic partners which gives them many of the same rights as married couples.

The Impact on Spousal Support

Since there's no common law marriage in California, there are no automatic rights to spousal support for unmarried couples. However, Palimony (a form of financial support to former partners in non-marital relationships) might be an option under certain circumstances, based on the promises made during the relationship.

Parental Rights and Responsibilities

Parental rights do not depend on marital status in California. Whether married or not, both parents have rights and responsibilities towards their children. Custody, visitation, and child support are determined based on the child's best interests, regardless of the parents' marital status.

Contact Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC

Understanding your legal rights and obligations is crucial whether you're married or in a non-marital, long-term relationship. At Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC, we're committed to providing clear, compassionate guidance to all our clients, ensuring they're fully informed about their legal standings in California. If you're facing legal questions about your relationship and property rights or need advice on protecting your interests, we're here to help. Call us today at 855-426-9111 or online to schedule a consultation. Let's navigate your legal matters together, ensuring you're prepared for whatever the future holds.

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