Is Common Law Marriage Recognized in Massachusetts?

Common law marriage refers to a marriage that is established through the conduct of the parties rather than through a marriage license and ceremony. It is a controversial form of marriage recognition in the United States, with only a handful of states continuing to recognize new common law marriages. Massachusetts is not one of those states.

This article will provide an overview of common law marriage and its status in the United States, with a focus on Massachusetts. We’ll look at the history of common law marriage in Massachusetts, the current legal stance, and the implications for couples who have been in long-term cohabiting relationships.

For couples looking to legally solidify their relationships in Massachusetts, we’ll also discuss alternatives to common law marriage. Navigating legal recognition for your relationship can be complicated, so it’s important to understand your options.

What is Common Law Marriage?

A common law marriage is established when a couple lives together and holds themselves out to the public as married, despite never having obtained a marriage license or going through a formal wedding ceremony.

To be considered a valid common law marriage, the couple must:

  • Live together for a significant period of time (duration depends on the state)
  • Present themselves to others as married – using the same last name, filing joint tax returns, etc.
  • Have the legal capacity to wed (being of age, not already married, etc.)
  • Mutually consent and agree to be married

All of this conduct leads to an assumption under the law that the couple intended to be married.

Common Law Marriage in the United States

Currently only 9 states and Washington D.C. recognize new common law marriages. These states are:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Rhode Island and Washington D.C.

The remaining states have abolished the recognition of new common law marriages, but may still recognize common law marriages from before the date they were abolished.

So why do so few states recognize common law marriage today? Some of the key reasons include:

  • Promotes marriage without formal requirements
  • Encourages fraud and leaves legal questions
  • Disputes over property rights and inheritance
  • Uncertainty over when common law marriage begins

There are also some common myths about common law marriage:

  • Living together for 7 years does not automatically create a common law marriage. There must be intent.
  • Having kids together does not make you common law married.
  • Introducing your partner as your spouse doesn’t make you married. All criteria must be met.

In short, common law marriage is controversial because it allows legal rights without going through the normal marriage process. States have gradually abolished it to avoid complications.

The History of Common Law Marriage in Massachusetts

Massachusetts recognized common law marriage from early colonial times up until 1913. Prior to 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had no laws related to marriage, so informal marriage was widely accepted.

In 1639, Massachusetts enacted laws to require marriage records and ceremonies, but common law marriage continued to be recognized. As long as a couple intended to be married and held themselves out to the community as such, they were considered legally wed.

This began to change in 1857, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that marriage licenses and records were required for legal marriage. Common law marriage slowly declined but was still valid if the intent to marry could be shown.

Finally, Massachusetts formally abolished common law marriage in 1913. No new common law marriages would be recognized after this date. However, the new law did grandfather in any common law marriages from before 1913 as legally valid.

The History of Common Law Marriage in Massachusetts

The Current Stance on Common Law Marriage in Massachusetts

Today, Massachusetts does not recognize new common law marriages and has not since 1913.

The only situation in which a common law marriage can still be upheld in Massachusetts is if the couple established the marriage before 1913 and there is clear evidence they:

  • Lived together
  • Held themselves out to the public as married
  • Had the capacity to marry
  • Mutually intended and consented to be married

If a couple in Massachusetts today lives together and presents as married, but never obtains a marriage license, they have no legal marriage rights.

How This Compares to Other States

As mentioned earlier, only 9 states and Washington D.C. recognize new common law marriages today. Massachusetts abolished this decades ago.

Some of Massachusetts’ neighboring states take different approaches:

  • New York – recognizes common law marriages from before 1933 only
  • Rhode Island – recognizes new common law marriages
  • Vermont – recognizes common law marriage from before 1941 only
  • New Hampshire – recognizes new common law marriages

So Massachusetts is in line with a majority of states in not recognizing new common law marriages. For couples who wish to have legal recognition and rights, formal marriage procedures are required.

The Legal Implications in Massachusetts

With no new common law marriages valid in Massachusetts, what does this mean legally for couples in long-term, cohabiting relationships?

There are several key areas where the lack of legal marriage through common law can significantly impact couples:

Property rights – Without marital property rights, couples have no claim to property accumulated during the relationship if they separate. There are no community property rights either.

Medical decisions – Partners have no automatic rights for visitation or to make medical decisions if their partner is incapacitated.

Inheritance – Surviving partners do not have spousal inheritance rights. They cannot make claims to any portion of the estate without being named in the deceased’s will.

Benefits – Partners cannot claim benefits through their partner’s employer retirement or health insurance plans. Filing joint tax returns is also not an option.

Child custody – If the couple has children but separates, custody battles can ensue. No parental rights exist for non-biological parents.

Immigration – A partner cannot claim residency or citizenship rights through their relationship alone.

Wrongful death – No standing to sue for wrongful death of a partner or claim worker’s compensation.

Domestic violence – More limited options for obtaining restraining orders or protection in domestic violence cases.

The key takeaway is that without formal marriage, every legal aspect of the relationship remains undefined in Massachusetts. Significant risks and complications can occur if relationships end or if major health events or death happen.

Alternatives to Common Law Marriage in Massachusetts

Common law marriage may not be an option in Massachusetts, but there are other ways for cohabiting couples to gain legal rights and recognition:

Get married – Marrying legally establishes all rights and benefits automatically. Marriages can be obtained through courts, town clerks, or officiants.

Domestic partnership agreement – A contract defining property, financial, inheritance, and other rights as if married. Not as strong as marriage but better than nothing.

Co-habitation agreement – Specifies rights, asset division, and support obligations if the relationship ends. Weaker than domestic partnership agreements.

Power of attorney documents – Grant a partner medical and financial decision-making rights.

Naming partner as beneficiary – On insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement accounts, etc. to allow inheritance.

Joint ownership of property – Shared deed, title, mortgage establishes joint property rights.

Each of these options can help secure some legal protections. But full marriage rights still require obtaining a marriage license and going through the formal process.

Navigating Legal Relationship Recognition in Massachusetts

For couples who have been in long-term, marriage-like relationships in Massachusetts, how can you establish legal rights? Here are some steps to consider:

Determine your priorities – What legal protections matter most? Medical decisions? Property rights? Inheritance? Identify your must-haves.

Understand your options – Learn the different legal avenues from marriage to contracts to planning documents.

Review financial accounts – Whose name is on what assets, bank accounts, properties? Any jointly held?

See an attorney – Consult a legal professional to review your situation and draft any needed documents.

Create estate plan – If marrying isn’t desired, allocating inheritance through wills is crucial.

Update documents over time – As circumstances evolve, revisit your legal protections and update as needed.

Ideally, consult an attorney early when relationships get serious to put protections in place upfront. Relying on common law marriage is not an option in Massachusetts.

Common Law Marriage and Same-Sex Couples

Until very recently, same-sex couples had no options for legal marriage in Massachusetts. This made common law marriage appealing.

Massachusetts paved the way by becoming the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. With this milestone, marriage equality opened up for same-sex couples here.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision also requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states. So today, same-sex couples can fully marry and enjoy all legal rights and benefits of marriage.

With access to full legal marriage, same-sex couples no longer need to turn to common law marriage. All couples can take the proper steps to establish marital rights.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is common law marriage allowed in Massachusetts?

No, Massachusetts has not recognized new common law marriages formed since 1913. Only very old common law marriages grandfathered in are still valid.

Can living together for many years equal marriage?

No, simply cohabiting for long durations does not create any marital rights in Massachusetts. Legal marriage requires obtaining a license.

What are the risks of relying on common law marriage in Massachusetts?

Major risks include no rights to property division, inheritance, medical decisions, benefits, and others. Legal advice is crucial.

What options exist besides common law marriage?

Alternatives like domestic partnership agreements, power of attorney, and estate planning can provide some protections. But marriage is the strongest.

Can same-sex couples use common law marriage?

No. With access to full legal marriage, same-sex couples no longer need common law marriage for recognition in Massachusetts.


Common law marriage is not a reliable avenue for legal rights in relationships today in Massachusetts. The state abolished recognizing new common law marriages over a century ago.

Couples who have been in long-term, cohabiting relationships face serious risks if their relationships end or their partner dies. Without the legal clarity of formal marriage, couples can experience property disputes, loss of inheritance, lack of medical rights, and more.

While not as strong as marriage, alternatives like contractual agreements and estate planning provide some protection. But all couples should consult attorneys to fully understand their rights.

Rather than hoping common law marriage principles might apply, couples should take proactive steps to legally solidify their relationships. Protecting each partner’s rights and wishes is too important to leave to chance.