Common Law Marriage in New York: An Overview

January 25, 2024
Louis Sternberg

Common law marriage is a concept that has intrigued and puzzled people for centuries. It’s a form of marriage that exists without the formalities of a traditional ceremony or marriage license. While common law marriages are recognized in some states in the United States, New York is not one of them. Here, we explore the history of common law marriage, its legal status in New York, and the implications for couples living in the state.

Understanding Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage, also known as “informal marriage” or “marriage by habit and repute,” is a legal doctrine that recognizes a couple as married even if they have not obtained a marriage license or had a formal wedding ceremony. Instead, it is based on the couple’s cohabitation and their reputation within the community as a married couple.

The concept of common law marriage has deep historical roots dating back to medieval Europe. It was a practical solution for couples who lived in remote areas or who could not afford a formal wedding. Over time, common law marriage became recognized in various parts of the United States.

As Heidi Glenn of NPR points out in the article titled No, You’re Not In A Common-Law Marriage After 7 Years Together:

“It exists in only a small number of states. Unless you live in one of those states, getting hitched will involve an official “I do” ceremony. Alabama had been one of the states that recognize common-law marriages, but it recently moved to abolish it, a trend that has been taking place nationwide for years.”

Common Law Marriage in New York

Does New York recognize Common Law marriage? New York is one of the states that do not recognize common law marriage. This means that, regardless of how long a couple has lived together in New York or how they present themselves to others, they are not considered legally married in the eyes of the state unless they have obtained a valid marriage license and had a formal ceremony.

In 1933, New York abolished common law marriage through the passage of the Domestic Relations Law Section 11 which states: “No marriage shall be valid unless an application for a marriage license has been made, the license issued and the marriage solemnized as provided by law.” This clear legal stance means that New York does not make any exceptions for common law marriages, regardless of the length of cohabitation or the couple’s intent to be considered married.

Implications for Couples in New York

The lack of recognition for common law marriage in New York has several implications for couples residing in the state:

  1. No Legal Protections: Couples who choose to live together without a formal marriage do not have the same legal rights and protections as married couples. This can affect issues related to property division, inheritance, and spousal support in the event of separation or death.
  2. Healthcare and Benefits: Many employers and government programs offer healthcare benefits and other privileges to spouses. Without a legal marriage, couples in New York may not be eligible for these benefits.
  3. Child Custody and Support: In cases where unmarried couples have children, establishing parental rights and responsibilities can be more complicated without the legal framework of marriage. This can lead to disputes and challenges in child custody and support matters.  In particular, where parties are not married, there is no presumption of paternity of a subject child.
  4. Property Ownership: When unmarried couples acquire property together, such as a home or assets, the division of property can be challenging in the absence of marriage laws that govern property division.
  5. End of Relationship: If an unmarried couple decides to separate, they may not have the same legal mechanisms in place for the fair distribution of assets and responsibilities as a married couple would have during a divorce.
  6. Inheritance: In the absence of a legal marriage, an unmarried partner may not have automatic inheritance rights in the event of their partner’s death. This can lead to legal battles over estates and assets.

Protecting Your Interests in New York

Given the lack of recognition for common law marriage in New York, it is essential for couples who choose to live together without a formal marriage to take certain steps to protect their interests:

  1. Consider a Cohabitation Agreement: A cohabitation agreement is a legally binding contract that outlines the rights and responsibilities of each partner in a relationship. It can cover property division, financial matters, and other important aspects of the partnership.
  2. Create Wills and Estate Plans: To ensure that your partner is taken care of in the event of your death, it is crucial to create wills and estate plans that specify your wishes regarding inheritance and asset distribution.
  3. Consult an Attorney: Seeking legal advice from an experienced family law attorney can help you navigate the complexities of living together in a state that does not recognize common law marriage. An attorney can help you draft legal documents and provide guidance on protecting your rights.
  4. Consider Marriage: Ultimately, if a couple in New York wishes to have the legal rights and protections that come with marriage, the simplest solution is to obtain a marriage license and have a formal ceremony.

Common law marriage may be a fascinating and historical concept, but it does not hold legal weight in the state of New York. Couples in New York who choose to live together without a formal marriage should be aware of the potential legal implications and take steps to protect their rights and interests through legal agreements and estate planning. While common law marriage has its place in history, it is essential to understand the current legal landscape to make informed decisions about relationships and partnerships in New York.