Common Law Marriage in California (Laws, Exceptions & Myths)

A popular myth claims that living long enough with your partner will grant you a legally recognized union called a common-law marriage. But is it true in every state? And how many years is common law marriage in California?

Common-law marriage is not recognized in California. However, unmarried partners who break up may claim some of the same rights as divorced spouses. While community property does not generally apply, under certain conditions, spousal support, often called palimony in this case, may apply.

To be legally married, according to California law, you must get a marriage license and exchange vows during an official ceremony, either civil or religious.

This myth sometimes says that such a union will legally grant you the same rights as state-registered married couples. While this is the case in a few states, most states, including California, do not recognize common-law marriages.

If you and your partner have been living together for a length of time in California, it’s important to know that California will not grant you a common-law marriage.

Ensure that you keep reading to find out what exceptions exist to this rule and how the laws surrounding the topic work.

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What is common-law marriage in California?

Common-law marriage in California typically exists between two individuals that consider themselves a married couple but legally aren’t.

This means that this common-law couple has lived together for an extended period of time and even exhibits typical characteristics associated with a legally married couple. These include joint finances and financial accounts, children, property, etc.

In some states, unmarried couples that have been together long enough can qualify for common-law marriage. However, many states, including California, do not recognize common-law marriage or grant them the same rights as a statutory marriage.

California marriage regulations require you to get a marriage certificate and exchange vows in a civil court for a civil contract or a religious wedding ceremony. Then your union will be officially considered legal in California.

This applies in all situations except in a select few, which I’ll discuss later in this article.

Can my girlfriend claim half my house in California?

No. In general, unmarried partners do not have the same rights to community property in California as ordinarily apply to married couples. The obvious exception being if she is on the loan or the deed.

However, unmarried couples who live together and satisfy certain qualifications (having a written contract) may bring marital-type claims for property and financial support after they separate, often known as “palimony” or “Marvin” claims.

This is because of the well-known Marvin v. Marvin case. Actress Michelle Triola Marvin filed a lawsuit against actor Lee Marvin in Marvin making Palimony Claims.

She was seeking monetary compensation comparable to that of California community property rules. She requested financial assistance and half of the $3.6 million Lee made during their six years in a relationship, although they never got married.

The California Supreme Court ruled that because Lee and Michelle had lived together for a long period, Michelle was allowed to sue Lee. The lawsuit became increasingly popular across the United States as the outcome would mean a lot for other similar cases in the future.

Unfortunately, Michelle lost the Lee Marvin claim and walked away without the compensation she sought, as there was no written or verbally implied agreement or contract that Lee would share property or pay support.

To be eligible, the court only allows 2 common means of proving property division:

  1. A Written Contract

Suppose there is a valid written agreement that both parties have signed, stating that they would share property and provide “spousal support” upon termination. In that case, the contract will be permissible during separation.

The couple would then need a thorough division process – figuring out the specific terms and proportions for the support and divisions of assets.

If they cannot reach a middle ground where the divisions are convenient enough for both parties, they will need to hire financial experts and attorneys or seek assistance at a reputable law firm. If there is further disagreement and one or both parties contest the decision, they must present the case before a judge to preside over it in court.

  1. An Implied Contract

An implied contract is much harder to prove than a written contract. This is because it becomes a slightly elevated form of “he said, she said”. An implied contract covers implied intent based on the parties’ behavior while together.

This would include acting in a manner or operating a system that could mean they agreed to share earnings and property if one party promised to provide what could be analogous to spousal benefits or financial support throughout the relationship and even after termination of the relationship.

Factors that would influence the California court’s perception of such a contract would include:

  • Financial habits of the couple: banking practices such as owning joined savings and checking accounts, using joint credit cards, the responsibility of paying off cards, joint loan applications, and accruing debt together
  • Taking titles together or separately
  • Pooling money to pay for residential property, real estate, or motor vehicles
  • Valid reasons for not getting married such as avoiding community property rights
  • The lifestyle before termination – a stable marriage-like union where both parties lived together and operated like a legally married couple

As such, property laws clearly state that your girlfriend cannot claim half your house in California unless you have a written agreement to share your property upon termination of the relationship.

Do unmarried couples have rights in California?

As I already explained, California does not recognize common-law marriages, nor does the state award them the same rights as a legally married couple. However, the state does recognize some common-law couples in specific situations.

For example, unmarried couples may have rights in California if the relationship was established in another state or a foreign country where common-law marriages are allowed. California also allows such unions to get divorce proceedings.

The small handful of states that recognize valid common-law marriage includes – Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Utah, Texas, Rhode Island, Colorado, Southern Carolina, and Montana.

Although none of the common-law marriage states actually specify that there has to be a certain number of years spent together, many use the 7-year or 10-year mark to qualify for a common-law marriage.

In these states, the couple’s legal rights include insurance, child custody, child support, alimony, property division, social security, healthcare benefits, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation rights.

Outside formal marriages, domestic partnerships and couples with cohabitation agreements are legal unions in California. The former is awarded the rights, protections, obligations, and benefits of a legally married couple.

Anyone over 18 can get a domestic partnership registration, but California state law only provides the benefits. On the other hand, a cohabitation agreement is more like prenuptial agreements that outline each spouse’s obligations and asset division should the time come.

What qualifies as a domestic partner in California?

The state of California established domestic partnerships in 1999. This type of “marriage” was established to give same-sex couples or couples who chose to forgo marriage access to the privileges and benefits of marriage.

With this, couples who opt out of marriage are legally granted “the same rights, protections, and benefits, and the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under the law – just as it would be with a married couple.

Following questions about the couple’s intentions for their union, these are the qualifications for a domestic partnership that will be required:

  • Neither party is married to someone else, or in a domestic partnership with another person, i.e., there isn’t a functional putative spouse status, or if one party is a surviving spouse of a deceased former spouse (if so, termination or dissolution of the previous engagement is necessary)
  • Both parties are not related by blood in any way
  • Both parties are at least 18 years old (individuals under the age of 18 may proceed with the written consent of the parties’ parents or guardians)
  • Both parties are fully capable of giving informed consent to the domestic partnership
  • The partnership has been registered with the California Secretary of State

How do you prove common-law marriage in California?

The strongest proof of a common-law relationship is a formal contract that both parties sign and declare their intent to form a civil union or a notarized declaration sworn by the partner trying to deny the union’s existence.

The court decides the legality of the marriage claim based on testimony and supporting evidence presented by both parties in situations when there is no agreement or document. There are many legal requirements and ways to prove that you and someone have a common-law marriage in California.

These include:

  1. Proof of shared leases or rental contracts
  2. Bank statements showing joint ownership of bank accounts (may be more than one)
  3. Documents showing evidence of shared residential or personal property, real estate, motor vehicles, etc.
  4. Driver’s license or other proof showing both parties have lived at the same place together
  5. Affidavits from relatives or friends who are familiar with the situation
  6. Plans that name the spouse as a beneficiary
  7. Witnesses testified that the couple addressed one another as husband and wife (this is also a good idea if one party denies the existence of the union)
  8. Supporting records such as shared credit card statements, joint tax returns/reports, loan documents, mortgages, and other agreements co-financed by the Couple
  9. A birth certificate identifying both parties as the child’s parents as proof in California family law courts
  10. Records proving one partner adopted the last name of the common-law spouse, e.g., employment records

Is there a common-law divorce in California?

Considering that California does not allow common-law marriage, you cannot get a divorce without a valid marriage license and other state-required criteria for legal marriage. This stands regardless of how long you two have been together or whether you now share the same name.

As earlier stated, the rules change a bit if your common-law marriage was approved in another U.S. state that recognizes common-law marriage (list included above).

This is due to the U.S. Constitution, which requires all states to give “full faith and credit” to the laws and decisions concerning these issues in other states.


The specifics of the legal status of an informal marriage can be tricky. If you and your partner are in such a long-term relationship in California or you intend to start one.

In your case, maybe you have parted ways already and are now seeking clarity on the exact procedure to follow.

I’d recommend that you get legal advice or speak to legal experts and figure out how to proceed.

Of course, I have to add that I am not a lawyer, nor do I know the laws in your state or country. I am, however, divorced (twice) and have recent experience going through one. However, my comments and articles should not be taken as legal or professional advice. If you need legal or professional advice you should consult a professional in your area.

Image by lindsey from Pixabay

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