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What is Common Law Marriage?


On the surface, marriage laws seem simple and clear: you’re either married or you aren’t. But did you know there are circumstances in which a couple doesn’t realize they’re legally married? Or that you could get a divorce without ever having a marriage ceremony?

Many of these unique situations start with a concept called common law marriage. You’ve probably heard the term, but how much do you really know about common law marriage in NC?

What is Common Law Marriage?

In a traditional marriage, or a statutory marriage as the law calls it, a couple is legally married when they file a completed marriage license with the state. In a common law marriage, however, the state recognizes a couple as legally married if they’re living as if they were married, even without a marriage license.

This doesn’t mean that every couple who lives together is considered to be married. The most important factor is whether they present themselves as married. For instance, they need to refer to each other as their spouses and share the responsibilities and finances in the household.

When that has been established, they have all the same legal considerations as couples in traditional marriages. They can make medical decisions for each other, file their taxes jointly, receive each other’s pension benefits after one spouse passes away, and more.

Does North Carolina Recognize Common Law Marriage?

Marriage is regulated at the state level, so each state can set its own laws about common law marriage and other factors. There is no statue that recognizes a new common law marriage in NC.

Common Law Marriages from Other States

While North Carolina doesn’t recognize common law marriages for couples within the state, it does recognize marriages that were established in other states.

In other words, if a couple begins a common law marriage in a state that recognizes common law marriage and then they move to North Carolina, North Carolina views them as legally married.

Ending a Common Law Marriage in NC

While a common law marriage in NC can only happen under the rare circumstances above, the aspect that many couples don’t consider is that if you began a common law marriage, the only way to end it is with a divorce.

A couple who is in a common law marriage in NC needs to get a divorce through the same steps as a couple who is in a traditional marriage. That means getting an attorney, filing for divorce, dividing assets, the whole nine yards.

If you don’t go through those steps, the state will still consider you to be legally married. This means that you can’t marry anyone else and that your ex will still have some control over your assets and other important matters.

If you’re in a traditional marriage or a common law marriage in NC you want to end, contact our divorce attorneys to get the ball rolling.


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