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Common Law Marriage in North Carolina

If you are in a long term relationship and live with your significant other, you may have at one point claimed you were married through Common Law. Or maybe someone noticed your long term relationship, and said, "After 7 years, you'll be common law married." But, what do these statements mean, and do they have any merit?

In fact, there are many misconceptions about common law marriage in North Carolina, and the Raleigh family law attorneys of the Doyle Law Group are here to shed some light on the subject.

What is Common Law Marriage?

Typically, Common Law Marriage is recognized as two individuals, cohabitating as a couple. They outwardly present themselves as husband and wife to the public and have told family and friends that they are married by common law. A marriage ceremony does not take place, yet a marriage partnership is recognized and is considered valid by the State.

What if the Couple Lives Together but Does Not Claim They Are Married?

This is precisely where a lot of confusion occurs. In jurisdictions that accept common law marriage, the couple STILL must present themselves as husband and wife. A couple that does not claim marriage will not be recognized as married, regardless of the length of time they have lived together.

If you live in a state that does recognize common law marriages and do not want to be recognized as common law married, though, it may be a good idea to make that known through a written agreement that you sign and date. 

Does North Carolina Recognize Common Law Marriage?

No. North Carolina does not recognize common law marriage from its residents, even if a couple claims they are married.

State statute 51-1 states that North Carolina does not, and never has recognized common law marriage. North Carolina, as with most states, follows what is called, "Statutory Marriage." This is defined as a recognized marriage due to its legal regulation through official legal code.

Unmarried couples who live together for any period of time are not recognized as married, and can not be granted the same rights allowed to legally married couples. 

What Is a Legal Marriage in North Carolina? 

In order for a partnership to be recognized as a legal marriage in North Carolina, and for the partners to be granted the marital rights allowed by such a union, the marriage must meet a few requirements:

  • Both parties must consent to the union 
  • Both parties must take each other as husband and wife freely, seriously, and plainly expressed in the presence of an ordained minister, or magistrate
  • The minister or magistrate must consequently declare the parties joined in matrimony 
  • The union must be in accordance with any mode of solemnization recognized by any religious denomination, or federally or State recognized Indian Nation or Tribe

Is there a Conditional Circumstance that NC will Recognize a Common Law Marriage?

An NC couple may be recognized as Common Law Married if a Power of Attorney has been established for each other, thereby entering into a contractual relationship by the two partners. Even this can be contested and will probably require legal support to help the claim of marriage.

Alternatives to Common Law Marriage

While North Carolina does not recognize common law marriages, there are some other agreements you may be able to enter into with someone you live with that will grant you certain legal protections and rights. These are called Cohabitation Agreements, and they are recognized by North Carolina law. 

These agreements can address concerns like asset dispersal, debt accountability, health decisions, and estate planning. While these can be created and upheld between roommates, they most commonly occur as Romantic Partner Cohabitation Agreements. These can outline property and asset division, as well as income distribution in the household. Just keep in mind that the validity and breadth of these agreements may vary from county to county. 

If you own property, plan on purchasing property with your partner, or have agreements about distribution of labor, income, and support, it may be a good idea to draft a cohabitation agreement with your partner. 

Will North Carolina Recognize My Common Law Marriage if I Moved There from Another State?

This is where North Carolina will most likely approve and accept a common law marriage. If you are recognized as a common law married couple in one state and relocate to NC, then the state will acknowledge the union. There are a few factors that must be met for the validity to be accepted.

  1. The couple must have engaged in cohabitation in a state that recognizes Common Law Marriage. States that recognize a common law marriage are: 
  • Alabama (for marriages before 2017)
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia (for marriages before 1997)
  • Idaho (for marriages before 1996)
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio (for marriages before October 1991)
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania (for marriages before 2005)
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah 
  1. The out of State Common Law Marriage was recognized by the state in which the cohabitation existed.
  2. The Court of North Carolina can establish a date the declaration of Common Law Marriage began.

In order for a common law marriage to have been legitimate in the states where it is recognized, all or some of the following requirements should be met:

  • Both parties must be 18 years old or older and of sound mind
  • The couple has lived together for a long period of time (at least one year in most states)
  • One party has taken the other’s last name
  • The couple owns property together
  • The couple shares joint bank accounts 
  • The couples file joint tax returns
  • The couple shares joint bank accounts
  • The partners refer to each other as spouses
  • The couple shares in household expenses
  • The couple have children together

These are common requirements or necessities when moving to a new state. Each state views Common Law Marriage differently. Moving to a state that does not recognize a common law marriage will require the couple to seek means to secure their status as married.

Benefits of Common Law Marriage

If you do live in a state that recognizes common law marriages, and you have established a partnership that meets the requirements, you can enjoy many of the benefits allowed to legally married couples. Those include social security benefits, employer benefits, tax benefits, and the ability to establish medical power of attorney.

I Have Legal Common Law Marriage and Need a Divorce. What Do I Do?

Since there is no common law divorce, you will still need to enter into the same steps for completing divorce that a Statutory Married couple will: A separation period of one year followed by a legal divorce. Common law couples will still encounter the same scrutiny for alimony, child support, and property division as their traditional marriage counterparts.

Speak to a Raleigh Divorce Attorney

Do You Have Questions or Need Legal Support for Common Law Marriage?

Although common law marriage is not recognized by North Carolina, if you need to establish a power of attorney for your long term relationship or you need assistance with the NC legal system from your recognized common law marriage from another state, then contact our Raleigh Family Law Firm for support. We have the experience to guide you through the process successfully.

Our attorneys can be reached by calling 919-230-2280 or completing the contact form below.

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