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Understand if you're in a common law marriage

Many people say that they are married by the standards of common law, but what does that really mean? Common law marriages are marriages that are not formally performed by a minister or through the court. Instead, they're a way of protecting people in a relationship who intended to get married, or who live together, as if they're married.

Common law marriage has been in place since 1877, and it's still recognized in 10 states as well as the District of Columbia. Five additional states recognize common law marriages with restrictions.

What is a common law marriage?

A common law marriage is one in which the couple appears and acts as if they are married, even though a formal ceremony wasn't performed and no marriage license was issued. There are some requirements to meet for a relationship to be considered a common law marriage. For instance, you both need to intend to marry each other at some point for a common law marriage to be established.

Another requirement is that you have to take the same last name, refer to each other as "wife," "husband" or "spouse" in public and/or have joint credit cards and bank accounts. You may not be married to another person and be in a common law marriage with a different party. You typically must also live together, although the length of time is negligible in Montana.

For a common law marriage to apply, you must both also have the capacity to marry. That means you have to be at least 18 and be of sound mind.

Although a common law marriage is informal, it does have perks if it is established. It can help each party protect their separate or marital assets, work through visitation or custody rights or obtain spousal support. Once a common law marriage exists, both parties are bound to each other in the same way that a marriage would bind them through a formal process.

The only true way to establish a common law marriage is to go to court and have a judge establish it. Once a judge recognizes that the marriage is valid, you can move forward with separating or simply have the peace of mind that you have rights, in case of a separation or other legal issues. Common law marriages are not uncommon, so you should be aware if you're in one yourself.

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