What is a common law marriage?

In a handful of states (listed below), heterosexual couples can become legally married without a license or ceremony. This type of marriage is called a common law marriage. Contrary to popular belief, a common law marriage is not created when two people simply live together for a certain number of years. In order to have a valid common law marriage, the couple must do all of the following:

  • live together for a significant period of time (not defined in any state)
  • hold themselves out as a married couple — typically this means using the same last name, referring to the other as "my husband" or "my wife," and filing a joint tax return, and
  • intend to be married.

When a common law marriage exists, the spouses receive the same legal treatment given to formally married couples, including the requirement that they go through a legal divorce to end the marriage.Which states recognize common law marriage?

Common law marriage is recognized only in the following states:

District of Columbia
Georgia (if created before 1/1/97)
Idaho (if created before 1/1/96)
New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only)
Ohio (if created before 10/10/91)
Rhode Island
South Carolina

Can I change my name if my marriage is common law?

Yes, anyone can change his or her name. In theory, most states allow you to legally change your name by usage only — meaning that you simply start using your new name without any court action, and at no cost.

However, practically speaking, since you don’t have a marriage certificate, you will need an official court order changing your name before you’ll get government agencies and many private companies, such as banks and title companies, to accept your new name.