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Starting January 1, 2017, Alabama will no longer recognize new common law marriages. For couples that get common law married before the end of the year though, the state will still continue to recognize those marriages as valid. And, most importantly for those couples that common law marry before the end of 2016, they will likely be able to utilize the courts for a divorce if they ever decide to part way.
Now before cohabitating couples start to panic, don't; it takes quite a bit more than simply cohabitating to become common law married. Despite the common belief that after a certain number of years a cohabitating couple is automatically married, this belief is false. It is important to note that only eight states, and also Washington, D.C., still recognize new common law marriages. Alabama will become one of six states that only recognize common law marriages if they were entered into before a certain date.
What Is a Common Law Marriage?
Quite simply, a common law marriage is one where a couple holds themselves out as a married couple and acts accordingly. Sometimes, a couple will actually go through the whole ceremony, but never get the official wedding license. Sometimes, the wedding license isn't signed, or gets lost, or for some other reason never gets filed. In these situations, so long as the state recognizes common law marriages, the couple will, more likely than not, be considered married.
Typically, for courts to accept that a couple is common law married, the court will want some evidence that the couple wants, or wanted, to be seen and regarded as a married couple, such as using a joint bank account, or having joint ownership of real property, the wearing of wedding rings, using the same last name, or even telling family and friends that they are married.
Significance of Common Law Marriage
When a couple that was never officially married (no wedding license, certificate, or other document filed with the state) gets divorced, if the state does not recognize common law marriage, or putative marriage, then the spouses may find that they aren't spouses at all, and that they have the same rights as a cohabitating unmarried couple. Frequently, this is beneficial for the primary wage-earning spouse, and it is not uncommon for the wage-earner to deny that a common law marriage ever existed.
Another significant issue surrounding common law marriage are the inheritance rights of common law spouses. When a non-married individual in a cohabitation situation dies without a will, there is a concern that the survivor will claim that a common law marriage existed in order to inherit their deceased cohabitant's property.