Does California Recognize Common Law Marriages?

Hossein Berenji, Jul 24, 2017

California is generally progressive when it comes to recognizing unions between its residents. One may think that California may be one of the few states in the country to recognize common law marriages. However, California actually takes the same view as the majority of states and (generally) does not recognize common law marriage.

Common law marriages are those where there is no formal, legal recognition, but rather are based on the length and duration of the relationship and cohabitation. California does not recognize common law marriage itself but will permit divorce proceedings for couples who have a common law marriage recognized by another state.

Dividing Assets When a Common Law Marriage Dissolves

When an unmarried couple in California splits up one common issue often arises – the division of assets. Married couples – whose union is legally recognized by the state – have an easier time dividing assets when the relationship dissolves. Prenuptial agreements and property laws dictate how assets should be divided, which can give a semblance of order to an otherwise tiresome and difficult process. Unmarried couples, however, are generally not afforded the guidance of these legal principals.

Generally, the division of assets is left to the soon-to-be-ex couple. There are, however, instances when the courts may get involved. The California Supreme Court held in a 1976 case that non-marital partners have the right to enforce express or implied agreements for financial support or property sharing in the event of a separation. A partner may file a civil claim for Palimony – often referred to as a “Marvin claim” after the name of the lawsuit on which it is based – to enforce implied or express agreements made during the common law marriage. Only when a Marvin Claim is filed may a court intervene and help resolve common law asset division issues.

California Courts hearing Palimony cases will weigh several factors to determine whether a claim for support or asset division is reasonable and permissible. When hearing a Marvin claim, courts will weigh the answers to the following questions:

  • How long did the partners live together?
  • Did one partner provide support for the other?
  • Did both contribute financially to the purchase of property?
  • Did one partner perform services that were valuable to the other?
  • Did the partners collaborate to create something of value?
  • Did the partners have express or implied agreements regarding support or property division?

Express vs. Implied Agreements

Civil claims to enforce express and implied agreements are common when unmarried couples who lived together split up. These are basically breach of contract cases in which one partner seeks to enforce performance of an agreement.

Proving breach of an express agreement is more straightforward because the agreement was executed in writing. The party seeking the performance must prove that the agreement exists and is valid.

Proving breach of an implied agreement is a bit trickier. Courts will often weigh a number of factors to determine if an implied agreement was likely to have existed and, if so, if it was breached by the party refusing to comply. Factors that may help a court determine if an implied agreement exist include:

  • Why the couple never married. If the reason was to avoid the legal community property division requirements, it may indicate that no implied agreement existed.
  • Whether the couple used joint or separate bank accounts to hold their individual earnings and assets.
  • Whether the couple used joint credit cards.
  • Whether one partner was the primary bill-payer or if both were separately responsible for their own expenses.
  • Whether title to property was taken individually or together.

Alternatives to Marriage in California

While California may not recognize Common Law marriages, the state does recognize unions outside of the traditional marriage landscape. Couples who do not wish to get married can enter a domestic partnership in the state of California. These are legal unions recognized by the state that offer the same rights and protections as a marriage.

Alternatively, couples who do not want to have their union formally and legally recognized by California can execute a Living Together Agreement or Cohabitation Agreement, which are similar to a prenuptial agreement. These agreements are binding contracts that dictate how assets will be divided in the event of a break up or death. Since the common law marriage is not recognized by the state, a surviving spouse will not be considered a beneficiary unless specifically designated through contracts or legal forms.

Couples who cohabitate but do not have a formal or legal recognition of the union should consider a Living Together Agreement to avoid time and resource-consuming palimony battles. Failure by one party to honor the agreement may, however, require a civil lawsuit to enforce the express agreement.

If you have questions about your relationship – and any rights you may have or want to have – contact our Los Angeles family law attorneys today.

Berenji & Associates
9595 Wilshire Blvd Ste 959
Beverly HIlls, CA 90212