California and the Recognition of Common-Law Marriages.

Understanding Common-Law Marriages in California

Contrary to popular belief, the sunny state of California does not recognize common-law marriages. A common-law marriage is a non-ceremonial relationship that considers a couple as legally married, despite not having formally registered their union or performed a marriage ceremony. This misconception often arises from portrayals in media or confusion with other states' laws where common-law marriage is recognized.

California's stance on this matter is clear-cut: for a marriage to be valid and legally binding in the state, the couple must obtain a marriage license and participate in a ceremony conducted by an officiant authorized by California law. This requirement has been consistent since 1895, following the case of Marriage of Smyth, where the California Supreme Court concluded that cohabitation and intention to be married do not constitute a lawful marriage in the state.

However, there are legal implications for couples who have cohabited for an extended period. For instance, in the division of property or inheritance matters, a long-term cohabitating partner may be recognized as having certain rights similar to those granted to spouses under California's 'palimony' laws, which emerged from the landmark case Marvin v. Marvin (1976). In this case, actor Lee Marvin was sued by his long-term partner Michelle Triola Marvin for financial support after their relationship ended, even though they were never legally married. The court recognized that non-marital relationship contracts could be enforceable if there was an agreement between the parties. However, these are civil agreements and do not equate to a common-law marriage.

For those who believe they have a common-law marriage established in another state where it is recognized (such as Texas, Colorado, or Iowa), it is important to note that while California does not establish such unions, it does recognize them if they are validly formed under another state's laws. This principle falls under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires states to respect the 'public acts, records, and judicial proceedings' of every other state.

In summary, while California does not allow for the establishment of common-law marriages within its jurisdiction, it does uphold such marriages formed in other states where they are legally recognized. Couples cohabitating in California should be aware that their relationship will not automatically provide them with the legal benefits or obligations of marriage and should consider formalizing their union through marriage or establishing written agreements regarding property and support to safeguard their rights.