Common-law marriage means that couples live together for a period of time, but never have a marriage license or church or civil wedding. For many centuries, this was usual. Around the 16th century weddings became either expected or required. Then marriage by common-law became a separate condition.

Being in a common-law marriage is not the same as cohabitation. To be considered common-law in the United States, couples must:

  • Live together for a certain amount of time (depending on the state)
  • Not be married to someone else
  • Be of sound mind and marriageable age
  • Be a married couple in appearance (having the same last name, having joint bank and credit card accounts, and calling each other husband and wife)

People can end up in common-law marriages unintentionally. If one or the other partner gets a divorce, or has a spouse pass away, and they live together as man and wife long enough, the marriage can eventually be considered common-law.

Not all states allow common-law marriages, but ten states plus the District of Columbia do. Some states that formerly allowed it will still recognize it for their residents retroactively. For example, Idaho will recognize marriages created before 1996, and Pennsylvania will recognize ones created before 2005.

Common-law marriages are just as legally binding as any other. But because there’s no documentation to show a marriage, common-law marriages are slowly fading away. It’s difficult to tell who’s entitled to marriage benefits, such as insurance or Social Security payments, without a documented wedding. A paper trail is considered more important in today’s complex society than it was in the past.

Common-law marriages entered into in a state that allows them are valid in all other states, even ones that don’t allow them. If John and Linda move to Illinois, which does not allow it, their common-law marriage is still good. This is due to the “full faith and credit” rule of the U.S. Constitution, by which the states cooperate with each other.