Does North Carolina Allow Common Law Marriage?

If you are in a long-term relationship and live with your significant other, you may have claimed at some point that you were married through common law. Or perhaps someone noticed your long-term cohabitation and said “After 7 years, you’ll be common law married.” But what do these statements really mean, and are they true?

The truth is, there are many misconceptions about common law marriage in North Carolina. The Raleigh family law attorneys at ABC Law Firm are here to clarify this complex subject.

What Exactly is Common Law Marriage?

In general, common law marriage is defined as two people living together as a couple, without getting legally married. They present themselves publicly as husband and wife, and tell friends and family they are married under common law. There is no official wedding ceremony, but the state recognizes the relationship as a valid marriage partnership.

What Exactly is Common Law Marriage?

What If A Couple Just Lives Together Without Claiming Marriage?

This is where much of the confusion arises. In states that recognize common law marriage, the couple must still claim to be married and present themselves as husband and wife. Simply living together, even for many years, does not make them legally married if they do not hold themselves out as spouses.

If you live in a state that allows common law marriage and want to avoid being considered married, it’s advisable to sign a written agreement explicitly stating you do not consider yourselves married.

Does North Carolina Allow Common Law Marriage?

No, North Carolina does not recognize common law marriage, even if a couple claims to be married under common law.

State statute 51-1 clearly states that North Carolina does not, and never has, recognized common law marriage. Like most states, North Carolina only acknowledges “statutory marriage”, defined as marriage recognized through official state laws and regulations.

Unmarried couples living together, no matter how long, are not considered legally married. They cannot be granted the same rights as legally married couples under North Carolina law.

What Constitutes a Legal Marriage in North Carolina?

For a partnership to be recognized as a valid legal marriage in North Carolina, granting all the rights of marital status, it must fulfill certain requirements:

  • Both parties must freely consent to the marriage, expressed plainly in the presence of an authorized officiant.
  • The officiant must then declare the couple joined in matrimony.
  • The marriage must comply with approved methods of solemnization recognized by religious groups, Indian Nations, or Tribes.

Are There Exceptions Where NC Would Recognize Common Law Marriage?

The only potential exception is if a couple has established power of attorney for each other, entering into a contractual relationship. Even then, this common law claim would likely require legal assistance to confirm the marriage.

Alternatives to Common Law Marriage in NC

Although common law marriage is not permitted in North Carolina, unmarried couples have some other options to secure legal protections:

Cohabitation Agreements – These contracts between intimate partners are recognized under North Carolina law. They can address issues like property division, debt allocation, healthcare decisions, and inheritance rights. While cohabitation agreements are sometimes created by roommates, they most often define the rights of unmarried romantic partners.

If you own property with your partner or want to formalize financial and domestic arrangements, a cohabitation agreement may be advisable. Make sure to consult a lawyer, as enforceability can vary by county.

Will NC Recognize My Common Law Marriage from Another State?

North Carolina may recognize a common law marriage established in another state under certain conditions:

  • The couple lived together and were considered married in a state recognizing common law marriage. States currently allowing common law marriage include Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
  • There is proof the marriage was legally valid in the original state, meeting that state’s requirements.
  • A North Carolina court can confirm the date the common law marriage began.

Meeting the following criteria helps prove a legitimate common law marriage in states where it’s permitted:

  • Both partners are 18+ years old and legally competent.
  • The couple lived together for an extended time (usually 1+ years).
  • One partner uses the other’s last name.
  • The couple owns joint property or assets.
  • They file joint tax returns.
  • They share bank accounts and household expenses.
  • They refer to each other as spouses.
  • They have children together.

These factors are commonly required when demonstrating a valid marriage. Every state has different laws around common law marriage. Moving from a recognizing state to North Carolina requires taking steps to maintain legal married status.

Benefits of Common Law Marriage

In states permitting common law marriage, qualifying couples enjoy many benefits allowed to legally married spouses. These include social security benefits, workplace benefits, tax benefits, and the ability to make medical decisions for a partner.

How Do I Get Divorced If I Have a Common Law Marriage?

Since there is no such thing as common law divorce, the same legal divorce process must be followed – a separation period followed by formal divorce proceedings. Common law couples face the same considerations around alimony, child support, and division of assets as traditionally married pairs going through divorce.

Seeking Legal Advice

Because North Carolina does not recognize common law marriage, it is crucial for unmarried couples to fully understand their rights and options. A lawyer’s guidance is essential for navigating any legal issues specific to your situation.

Whether establishing a cohabitation agreement, handling the dissolution of a long-term relationship, or dealing with an out-of-state common law marriage, sound legal advice is strongly recommended. Do not hesitate to consult an attorney experienced in these matters.

In summary, North Carolina’s lack of recognition of common law marriage can create complications for couples in long-term cohabitating relationships. Unmarried partners need to take proactive steps to protect their rights and interests through legal means. Expert legal counsel plays an invaluable role in ensuring your rights are secured.