NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Common Law Marriage Used to be Quite Common

March 17, 2004

Couples in earlier centuries were often living together before they were formally married due to the fact that states had little or no requirements for getting married, and such common law arrangements were not frowned upon. For example:

  • An 1843 Indiana law required no ceremony or license - simply that the couple acknowledge themselves to be husband and wife.
  • Many couples were committed and living together for months or even years before they could find a circuit judge or priest to marry them.
  • In the early Chesapeake region, one-third of brides were pregnant by the time they got married.

Moreover, couples married at earlier ages (as young as 12 for females and 15 for males), and husbands and wives had incentives to stay together since the labor of both was important to their survival.

However, as divorce became more prevalent, states had to establish some legality to prevent "self" divorces that would lead to destitution. By the 19th century, states passed a variety of laws establishing terms for marriage:

  • Thirty states prohibited the mentally disabled from marrying; in Washington and North Dakota, those with advanced tuberculosis were not permitted to marry.
  • Many states enacted racial restrictions on marriage; Mississippi instituted life in prison for interracial marriages.
  • Divorce laws often varied from state to state, with some states allowing divorce in extreme cases such as adultery, drunkenness and desertion.

Marriage laws varied so widely among states, couples often fled to states with the most lenient requirements.

Source: Cynthia Grossen, "Couples in the U.S. Used to Marry Early, Often and Informally," Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2004.


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