Does California Have Common Law Marriage? Find out now!

common law marriage is a marriage that comes into existence when a couple lives together and holds themselves out to society as being married. This type of marriage requires no license and no ceremony. It is based solely on the conduct of the couple.

Several misconceptions exist around whether California recognizes common law marriage. This article will clarify the reality of common law marriage in California by:

  • Explaining what common law marriage is
  • Reviewing California’s stance
  • Debunking common misconceptions
  • Discussing implications for unmarried couples
  • Identifying alternatives to legal marriage

The goal is to provide clarity around common law marriage so couples can make informed decisions.

Understanding Common Law Marriage

common law marriage, also known as a marriage by habit and repute, is a legal marriage that is created through the behavior of the couple rather than registering their marriage with a governmental authority.

Common law marriage differs from a ceremonial marriage in that it does not require:

  • A marriage license
  • A wedding ceremony
  • Registration of the marriage

It requires only that the couple:

  • Lives together
  • Holds themselves out to society as married

Currently, only the following states recognize common law marriage:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only)
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

The requirements to establish a common law marriage vary by state. Most states impose a time threshold for cohabitation before recognizing a common law marriage.

California’s Stance on Common Law Marriage

California does not recognize common law marriage. Section 300 of the California Family Code explicitly states:

A marriage shall be licensed, solemnized, and authenticated, and the authenticated marriage license shall be returned to the county recorder of the county where the marriage license was issued, as provided in this part. Noncompliance with this part by others than a party to a marriage does not invalidate the marriage.

In other words, a valid marriage in California requires a marriage license and solemnization. The state does not recognize an unmarried cohabitating couple as legally married, regardless of how long they have lived together.

California’s position on common law marriage aligns with its history. Though some early cases suggested California accepted common law marriage, the state legislature moved to abolish it in 1895. Common law marriage has not been recognized in California for over 100 years.

Common Misconceptions About Common Law Marriage in California

Several misconceptions exist around common law marriage in California:

Misconception 1: Living together for 7 years constitutes a common law marriage.

  • Reality: No period of cohabitation establishes a common law marriage in California.

Misconception 2: Referring to a partner as a “spouse” makes the relationship a legal marriage.

  • Reality: Using marital terms does not create a legal marriage without a marriage license and solemnization.

Misconception 3: Common law spouses have the same rights as formally married couples.

  • Reality: California does not recognize any spousal rights under a common law marriage.

Simply living together, using marital terms, or representing the relationship as a marriage does not legally make a couple married in California. A license and solemnization are required.

Implications of California’s Lack of Common Law Marriage

California’s refusal to recognize common law marriage has several legal implications for unmarried cohabitating couples:

Property Rights

  • Partners have no community property rights
  • Property acquired during cohabitation is characterized as separate property
  • Partners must formally document joint property ownership


  • Partners do not inherit through intestate succession laws
  • Deceased partner’s assets pass to their legal heirs
  • Inheritance rights require estate planning documentation

Formal marriage provides automatic property and inheritance rights in California. Unmarried couples must take legal steps to protect their assets and relationships.

Implications of California’s Lack of Common Law Marriage

Alternatives to Common Law Marriage in California

Though common law marriage is not recognized, California offers alternatives to legally protect unmarried couples:

Domestic Partnership

  • Registration through the California Secretary of State
  • Extends various legal protections to unmarried couples
  • Requires cohabitation and shared financial responsibility

Cohabitation Agreement

  • A contract defining property and financial rights
  • Allows couples to customize the terms of their relationship
  • Provides legal documentation of arrangement

Legal Planning

  • Wills, trusts, and estate planning to dictate inheritance
  • Titling property as joint tenants with right of survivorship
  • Granting power of attorney for healthcare and finances

These options allow unmarried couples to gain some legal benefits and protections.

Navigating Relationship Agreements in California

When creating any legal agreement as an unmarried couple, it is wise to:

  • Consult an attorney – Ensure agreements comply with state law
  • Consider individual needs – Reflect each person’s financial situation
  • Plan for change – Allow for evolution of the relationship
  • Formalize agreements – Use proper legal formats and execution

Resources for legal help include:

  • Local family law attorneys
  • Legal aid clinics through law schools
  • Mediation services

Thoughtful planning allows unmarried couples to secure legal rights.

Real-Life Scenarios and Case Studies

Case Study 1

  • James and Angela lived together for 15 years and referred to each other as husband and wife.
  • When James died, Angela had no inheritance rights because they had no legal marriage.
  • James’ estranged brother inherited all assets through intestate succession.

Case Study 2

  • Mark and Jennifer executed a cohabitation agreement when they moved in together.
  • The agreement defined joint property rights and dictated inheritance.
  • When Mark died, Jennifer received assets as outlined in the agreement.

These examples demonstrate the importance of proper legal planning for unmarried couples. Simply acting married does not equate to legal spousal rights in California.


In summary, California does not recognize common law marriage under any circumstances. Unmarried couples cannot acquire spousal rights through cohabitation and reputation alone. However, alternatives like domestic partnerships and written agreements can provide some protections. Educating yourself on state laws and identifying the appropriate legal steps are vital for unmarried couples.

The key is understanding that while you may consider yourself essentially married, in California’s eyes, you are legally single without formal documentation. Protect yourself by being informed and proactive.