California Common Law Marriage

All You Need to Know

In common law marriage, a couple is considered married even without a formal wedding ceremony or marriage license from the state in which they live. In California, common law marriage is not officially recognized.

However, California does acknowledge the legal status of couples who have entered into common law marriages in other states.  But simply living together and presenting yourselves as a married couple does not automatically grant you the legal benefits and protection of a married couple in California. 

What Is Common Law Marriage?

Common law marriage is a legally recognized relationship between two people who act as if they are married, without having a formal ceremony or marriage certificate.  While the requirements for common law marriage vary from state to state, some jurisdictions require a specific period of cohabitation, or living together, for the relationship to be considered valid.

In a common law marriage, the couple lives together and presents themselves as a married couple to their family, friends, and the community at large. They may also share joint bank accounts, file joint tax returns, and have joint credit cards.

In summary, common law marriage is a unique type of legally recognized relationship where a couple acts as if they are married without having a formal ceremony or marriage certificate. Couples, therefore, in such relationships should understand the specific requirements and the legal rights and responsibilities that come with common law marriage within the state they live.

Is Common Law Marriage Recognized in California?

Common law marriage is not recognized in California.  This means that unmarried couples cannot acquire the legal and financial rights that married couples have no matter how long they live together or whether they simply consider or declare themselves to be married.

To be legally married in California, couples must meet certain requirements, including obtaining a marriage license from the County Clerk’s office and having a ceremony performed by an authorized person. 

Couples do not have the same financial and legal protections that come with being legally married. Some of these protections include alimony and community property designation on certain property the couple owns.

Although you may believe you are in a common law marriage, you are not actually in a legal marriage in California. You need to go through the process of getting a marriage license and having an actual marriage ceremony if you want to be legally married in the state.

California Recognizes Common Law Marriage in Certain Circumstances

To summarize, common law marriage is generally not recognized as a valid form of marriage in California. In other states, common law marriage is a type of legal marriage that occurs when two individuals live together and present themselves as a married couple without going through a formal ceremony or obtaining a marriage license.

However, in California, couples who meet specific criteria may be considered as having a valid common law marriage, which grants them certain legal rights and responsibilities. 

A Major Exception

However, under Family Code Section 308,  California will recognize a common law marriage if the couple is considered validly married in another state before moving to California.

This exception applies when a couple relocates to California after establishing a common law marriage in a jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages. In these cases, California law acknowledges the validity of the marriage and grants the couple the legal rights and responsibilities that come with being married.

It is important to note that this exception only applies to couples who were considered married in a jurisdiction where common law marriage is recognized. If a couple has been living together in California “as if” married, but their relationship does not meet the legal requirements of a valid marriage, they will not be considered legally married.

US States that Recognize Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage is a type of marriage recognized in some US states where couples are considered legally married without obtaining a marriage license or having a formal ceremony. The following states currently recognize common law marriage:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

Recognition of common law marriages can sometimes lead to disputes, especially when one party claims the marriage is valid, and the other disagrees. Disputes may arise when attempting to prove the elements required for a valid common law marriage or when seeking to claim legal rights and benefits associated with a legal marriage. At issue may be rights to alimony or community property characterization in California.

California Palimony Law

Although California does not recognize common law marriage, courts may still award financial relief, in the form of support or maintenance, to an unmarried person who no longer live with his or her partner. In this situation, the couples’ marriage is invalid. This is referred to as “palimony” or  “partner support.” Palimony is based on common law principles. 

To establish a claim for palimony, the partner must prove that he or she entered into an agreement, whether express or implied in law, with respect to the support or maintenance of each other.

Benefits of a valid marriage

A valid marriage allows a couple to inherit each other’s community property with or without a will. Medical decisions can be made for a husband or wife. Retirement benefits and other property characterized as community property can be divided in the event of a divorce. A divorce court may award temporary or permanent spousal support or “alimony.”

FAQs About California Common Law Marriage

Q: Does California recognize common law marriage?

A: No, California does not recognize common law marriage. In order to be legally married here, you and your significant other must obtain a marriage license and have an official ceremony.

Q: Are there any exceptions?

A: The only exception is for common law marriages that were established in other states that do recognize it. If a couple had a valid common law marriage in a state that recognizes it, California may also recognize that marriage as well.

Q: What does this mean for unmarried couples in California?

A: Unmarried couples in California do not have the same legal rights and protections as married couples. This includes issues related to property division, financial accounts, and more. 

Family Law and Marital Assistance in California

The Law Offices of Keith F. Carr is a trusted firm offering a range of services to assist unmarried couples and individuals with their family law matters.

We specialize in providing legal counsel and representation in family law cases, including issues related to marriage, divorce, spousal and child support, child custody, and community property division. We can guide you through the intricacies of California’s family law courts and ensure your legal rights are protected. 


When it comes to issues like property division, spousal support, and medical decisions, unmarried couples may face more complex challenges compared to legally married couples. Contact the Law Offices of Keith F. Carr for a telephone consultation today and ensure your rights are protected in California.

About Author

Keith F. Carr is an attorney practicing Divorce, Estate Planning, and Bankruptcy. Attorney Keith F. Carr has over 30 years experience. Founder of Law Offices of Keith F. Carr, located in San Francisco, San Jose, and Palo Alto, Ca.

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