Is There Common Law Marriage in Tennessee? Find Out Now!

Common law marriage refers to a relationship between two people who live together and present themselves as a married couple, but have not had a legally recognized wedding ceremony. Many states recognize common law marriages as legally valid, but the requirements and acceptance of these informal partnerships vary significantly across the United States. This article will focus specifically on Tennessee’s stance on common law marriage and what it means for couples living together in the state.

We’ll start with an overview of common law marriage in general, then dive into Tennessee’s legal position and how it impacts the rights and protections afforded to cohabitating couples. We’ll clear up some common misconceptions and discuss alternatives like domestic partnerships and formal marriage for solidifying legal ties. By the end, you’ll have a clear understanding of where Tennessee stands on common law marriage so you can make informed decisions about your own relationship.

What is Common Law Marriage?

A common law marriage is a partnership that comes into existence when two people capable of getting married live together and hold themselves out to society as a married couple, even without obtaining a marriage license or having a ceremony. Several requirements typically must be met for a common law marriage to be valid:

  • The couple lives together for a significant period of time
  • They present themselves publicly as married
  • They have the legal capacity to wed (e.g. not already married to someone else)
  • They intend and agree to be married, even if informally

Only a minority of U.S. states recognize common law marriage currently. It arose historically from English common law and was more widespread in America in the 17th through 19th centuries when formal weddings were less common. Today it persists mainly for the purpose of legitimizing relationships for legal benefits like property inheritance, medical decisions, and alimony.

Tennessee’s Legal Position on Common Law Marriage

Unlike some other southern states, Tennessee explicitly does not recognize common law marriage. The state abolished this form of informal partnership in 1919 and it has remained prohibited ever since. Statute 36-4-104 states that “Marriage cannot be contracted in this state by agreement and consent of parties, but only in the manner provided in this chapter.”

Prior to 1919, Tennessee did uphold common law marriages. Couples who satisfied the requirements could enjoy the legal benefits of formal matrimony even without an official license and ceremony. But after this date, these partnerships no longer conveyed marital rights and duties in the state. Only a legally certified wedding makes you officially married in the eyes of Tennessee law.

Common Myths vs. Reality

Despite the clear legal position on common law marriage, misconceptions still persist among some Tennessee residents. You may hear claims like:

  • “If you live together for 7 years, you’re automatically common law spouses.”
  • “Just tell people you’re married and the law will recognize your relationship.”
  • “If you have kids together and share property, you have a common law marriage.”

These assumptions are false under Tennessee law. No amount of cohabitation, reputation as a couple, commingled finances, or children born confer marital status for Tennessee couples who lack a proper marriage certificate. State law is unambiguous that courtship practices like these do not constitute legal matrimony.

The only exception is for common law marriages validly formed in other states that then recognize Tennessee residency. But common law marriage cannot legally be established by Tennessee couples living together within the state.

Legal Implications for Couples in Tennessee

The prohibition on common law marriage has several legal implications for unmarried partners residing in Tennessee:

  • No automatic property rights. Without marital status, couples have no legal claim to each other’s property or assets if they separate or a partner dies. Cohabitation doesn’t entitle you to alimony or inheritance.
  • No authority to make medical decisions. Unmarried partners cannot make emergency medical choices for each other if incapacitated or act as surrogate healthcare power of attorney.
  • Child custody uncertainty. For unmarried parents, no presumed joint custody exists over children. Custody requires separate legal agreements.
  • No default survivor benefits. Partners are ineligible for Social Security survivor benefits, workplace death benefits, veterans benefits, etc.
  • Estate taxes may apply. Assets transferred to an unmarried partner at death may be subject to estate taxes.

Proceeding without formal marriage exposes couples to significant legal and financial jeopardy. Mere cohabitation confers none of the default protections that legal matrimony establishes.

Legal Implications for Couples in Tennessee

How to Protect Your Relationship Legally

So if common law marriage isn’t an option in Tennessee, how can you secure legal protections for your committed cohabiting relationship? Consider these steps:

  • Create wills and advance healthcare directives naming each other as sole beneficiary and surrogate decision maker. Update as circumstances change.
  • Draft a cohabitation agreement outlining property ownership, support obligations if you separate, and inheritance desires.
  • If having children, petition the court for a parenting plan order to establish custody rights for each parent.
  • File paperwork for power of attorney privileges allowing you to make financial, legal, and medical decisions for each other if incapacitated.
  • Review all insurance beneficiaries to ensure assets transfer to the desired partner if either individual dies.
  • Consult an attorney to understand all options available for legally shielding your relationship under Tennessee law. Protections exist but require proactive steps.

 Alternatives to Common Law Marriage

Rather than relying on the myth of common law marriage, Tennessee couples do have options:

  • Formal marriage with a wedding certificate filed with the county provides you with full legal spousal rights and responsibilities.
  • If disinclined toward marriage, domestic partnership or civil union laws now exist in some nearby states like Illinois and Virginia and may be an alternative.
  • Lobby state government representatives to enact domestic partnership legislation recognizing and protecting unmarried couples under Tennessee law, as some states have done.


Tennessee law leaves no ambiguity about its refusal to acknowledge informal or common law marriage between cohabiting couples. Although misconceptions persist, partners have no automatic legal claims to each other’s property, benefits, or end-of-life decision making without formal matrimony. To prevent uncertainty and vulnerability, unmarried couples should educate themselves about securing vital protections through proper legal agreements and recognition options available both in state and nearby. With the right steps, you can fortify your partnership under the law even without common law marriage.