Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Common Law Marriage

The basic requirements of marriage are fairly straightforward: the parties must agree to marry, must be eligible to marry, and must go through whatever forms are required for marriage in that state where they intend to marry. Marriage is not, however, treated uniformly throughout the states. The formal requirements vary from state to state. In general, parties must secure a marriage license and participate in some form of a ceremony.

There are many people who have not participated in a valid ceremonial marriage but still live and share life together as though they had. Their relationship might instead be defined by an alternative doctrine. Common-law marriage is an example of one such alternative doctrine. It differs from ceremonial marriage in terms of the way in which it is entered into. While it lacks the same formalities (such as obtaining the marriage license), the other substantive limitations still apply. A formal divorce action is necessary to end a common-law marriage, just the same as a ceremonial marriage.

What are the basic elements of common law marriage?

To have a common-law marriage, the parties must first intend to be married. In addition, they must continuously cohabitate and hold themselves out as husband and wife. The “holding out” element entails the public’s perception of the couple, as well as establishing uniformity and consistency. There is essentially no such thing as a secret common-law marriage. “Holding out” might be evidenced by, among many other things: the intent and belief of the couple with respect to the relationship, opinions from members of the community as to how the community regards the couple, use of the same last name, designations on life insurance policies, wedding bands, how the parties refer to each other, and even how their bills are paid and mail is addressed.

It is important to remember, however, that not every state recognizes the doctrine of common-law marriage. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only nine states, including Kansas, recognize common-law marriage (along with another five that have “grandfathered” common-law marriage).

Does Missouri recognize common law marriage?

Missouri is not among the states that recognize the common-law marriage doctrine. Under Missouri Revised Statute § 451.040, “common-law marriages shall be null and void.” There is an exception for common-law marriages contracted before 1921.

In order to give full faith and credit to the laws of other states, Missouri will also recognize marriages that have been validly contracted in a different state, as long as the marriage comports with the other state’s requirements. Even if the other state recognizes the validity of a common-law marriage, however, Missouri may not recognize the marriage it if it is found to violate public policy.

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