Did you know that married couples receive more than 400 state and 1,000 federal economic and legal benefits? The obvious include joint health, auto and life insurance policies, as well as automatic inheritance in the absence of a will, child support, etc. But couples who have obtained a marriage license are also allowed domestic violence protection orders, joint adoption and sick leave to care for an ailing spouse. The list goes on.
There are a number of reasons why some decide to forego the formal ceremony or even a visit to the courthouse, but these couples, however committed they may be, also have to forego these rights in most states.
Homosexual couples have few alternatives, but heterosexual couples can receive these benefits if they can prove their devotion to one another.
Common law marriage, sometimes called de facto marriage, has existed for centuries. Long ago, communities relied upon a couple's public relationship dynamic to validate the union. In other words, the bond was common knowledge; hence the name. CLM renders the couple legally married in every way, even if they never obtained a marriage license.
CLM has been abolished completely in Europe; but Canada, Australia and Israel more or less have an equivalent, though it often goes by a different moniker. Specific rights vary by jurisdiction both here and abroad, but only a handful of states in the union uphold the legitimacy of common law marriages.
Not too surprisingly, Oklahoma is one of 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) that recognizes CLM. There has been some controversy during the years, but its legitimacy was recently upheld by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in the case of Standefer vs. Standefer in 2001. There's no way to tabulate the number of common law marriages, though Tulsa County sees very few that involve the issue.
Interestingly, certain aspects of Oklahoma law suggest that common law marriages may be invalid. "Statutes in Oklahoma found in title 43 Section 1 seem to indicate that the only way to be married in Oklahoma is by the issuance of a license - the marriage must be performed by a ceremony, and must be solemnized in the presence of witnesses by a person authorized by the statute," said Terry Simonson, Director of Development and Government Affairs for Tulsa County and Public Information Officer. "Nonetheless, case law in Oklahoma has upheld common law marriage. Bills have been introduced in the past in the legislature to do away with the common law marriage but they have failed to pass."
Every state has its own set of criteria and, according to Simonson, particulars aren't convincing enough by themselves; but when considered as a whole, a couple can claim these benefits rather easily.
Essentially, both parties must behave like a married couple; the formal term is "holding themselves out" as husband and wife. The criteria are few, yet powerful. Obviously, the agreement has to be mutual. Other elements of a common law marriage (as defined by the state of Oklahoma) include exclusivity, as well as a continuous relationship for a substantial length of time (usually, at least a year). They must present themselves as a married couple in public; witnesses would have to testify to that. They must also live together and assume other marital duties and obligations.
Lastly, both people must be of legal age to marry. By Oklahoma state law, a person under the age of 16 years cannot marry without a court order.
There are also more 'arbitrary' behaviors common to most marriages that supplement the evidence above. First, does the couple don wedding rings? The ring is the conventional symbol of commitment in American culture; and most Westerners automatically assume that if one wears a ring on the left hand's ring finger, that person must be married.
Believe it or not, some unwed couples file joint tax returns, share a bank account and even own property together. Willingness to pool their resources demonstrates a couple in it for the long haul. Additionally, couples who share debt or those who have applied for credit together also have a compelling case.
Thanks, But No Thanks
Conversely, if a couple wants to avoid common law marriage status, they must express somehow that neither person intends to marry the other and that they want to retain independence. Authors Ihara, Werner and Hertz of Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples recommend a written agreement signed and dated by both partners stating their intentions: "Jane Smith and John Doe agree as follows: That they've been and plan to continue living together as two free, independent beings and that neither has ever intended to enter into any form of marriage, common law or otherwise."
There is no way to form a common law marriage in a state that does not recognize them. However, couples who temporarily live in CLM states can claim 'married' status once they return to the non-CLM state. All states honor heterosexual marriages that occurred in other states under the "faith and full credit" clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It sounds easy enough, but let's say the relationship dissolves after some time. Can one get a 'common law divorce'? No. In fact, a CLM cannot simply be annulled, but the couple must go forth with conventional divorce proceedings. People have been known to lie to insurance companies to obtain benefits for a significant other. After a messy break-up, that declaration can come back and haunt an individual in the form of property and inheritance disputes.
The Standefer case that upheld CLM is a perfect example. "It had to do with a divorce and the dispute was over the division of money received by Mr. Standefer from a personal injury case and whether or not it was considered marital property," explained Simonson. "One of the questions the court had to decide was when they were legally considered married in order to decide if this money was received before or after the marriage."
While common law marriages protect partnerships in many ways, they can become rather complicated. It is important to talk to one's significant other in order to gain mutual understanding of the other's expectations and intentions.
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