California Common Law Marriage – What You Should Know?

By Quinn & Dworakowski, LLP | Oct 16, 2022

There are many different types of family setups. No matter what your situation may be, it is important to understand your options as well as other family formats so that you can better understand your friends and neighbors. There are many alternatives to marriage that most people do not know about or understand.

Common law marriage is a frequently misunderstood relationship dynamic. Although the situation is relatively rare, the laws surrounding common law marriage change fairly frequently. In fact, many states do not recognize common law marriage, and California is one of them.

Although California does not recognize common law marriages, there are other alternatives and benefits that may be available to you. If you are exploring a California domestic partnership or marriage, it is important to speak with an attorney beforehand so that you know your rights and can navigate the process correctly.

What Is Common Law Marriage?

Common law marriage occurs when romantic partners have lived together for a certain amount of time and are allowed some of the benefits of marriage without getting married. This is not federally recognized, and only a few states offer benefits to common law couples. California does not recognize common law marriages, and couples cannot access marriage benefits unless they are married, no matter how long they have lived together or been in a relationship.

In the states that allow common law marriages, couples must present themselves as a couple to the public to be eligible for the union. This means living together, interacting with friends as a couple, sharing special occasions, etc. For instance, roommates who have lived together for many years, but who are not a romantic couple in any other way, would not be eligible for common law marriage benefits.

Domestic Partnership

Since California does not acknowledge common law marriages, you may want to consider a domestic partnership. Although it does require more paperwork than a common law marriage, it does give you some of the benefits of a married couple without having to go through the marriage process.

Domestic partnership offers many benefits, such as:

  • The right to joint adoption
  • The right to visitation in hospital settings
  • The right to bereavement leave
  • The right to family leave

Although domestic partners do not get all the benefits of a married couple, they do have access to many of the benefits that single partners do not. A domestic partnership can be legally ended by only one of the partners; both do not need to consent. For those who are intimidated by the permanence or setup of a traditional marriage, domestic partnerships can be helpful.

Common Law Marriages and the Federal Government

If you live in a state where common law marriages are recognized, it is important to understand that the federal government does not acknowledge these agreements. The federal government also does not acknowledge domestic partnerships as a legal agreement. You cannot access any federal tax or federal program benefits if you are not legally married.

Common law marriage couples must still file taxes, but they cannot file jointly. Each member must file separate taxes with the federal government, as it views all finances as separate unless a couple is married. For example, if you apply for a federal grant program and you must fill in your income, you cannot enter your household income on the form. You must keep your finances separate, as the federal government does not legally recognize your access to your partner’s money.


If you and your partner have biological children together, it is important that both parents’ names appear on the child’s birth certificate. If a mother is unmarried when she gives birth, the father must be present to sign the birth certificate as the legal father. If you are in a common law marriage, the law does not automatically recognize you as the father of any children that your partner gives birth to. Fathers who do not sign their children’s birth certificates and are unmarried to the child’s mother at the time of birth are not entitled to any parental rights or time with the child.

FAQs About California Common Law Marriage

How Do You Protect Yourself in a Common Law Marriage?

If you are in a common law marriage, make sure that you get everything in writing. If you and your spouse buy a large purchase together, ensure that both names are on the purchase slip. Create as much documentation as you can to use in case any legal issues arise surrounding your relationship. You should check your state’s common law marriage rights. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to become domestic partners or get married.

Do Unmarried Partners Have Any Rights in California?

Not usually. Unmarried couples do not have claim to inheritance, access to medical documents, tax benefits, or any other common marriage right. The only time that an unmarried partner can have such a right is if they sign a legal agreement that documents it. The law allows unmarried couples to enter into these specific legal agreements, but there are no overarching or automatic rights.

When Did California Get Rid of Common Law Marriage?

1895. No one alive has been in a recognized California common law marriage. The states that do recognize common law are:

  • Alabama
  • New Hampshire
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Texas
  • South Carolina
  • Rhode Island
  • Colorado
  • Montana
  • District of Columbia
  • Utah

The federal government does not recognize common law marriages. Citizens of California who wish to be in a more formal union can get a domestic partnership or be legally married.

Does Community Property Apply to Unmarried Couples in California?

No. California does not recognize any aspect of common law marriages, including community or shared property. If an unmarried couple has shared property, they must have an agreement stating that it should be split evenly. The law will not automatically assume that there is any shared property unless the couple is married.

Contact Quinn & Dworakowski, LLP

If you have questions about any family law matters in the state of California, you can trust our team to advise you. To learn more, contact Quinn & Dworakowski, LLP, online.

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