NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Common Law Marriage

March 5, 2004

While married couples may (or may not) include same-sex couples, they may also include couples of the opposite sex who never got a valid state marriage license or participated in a ceremony conducted by a state-authorized official. Some of them may be unaware that they are legally considered married, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that are recognized, granted or imposed by a state.

Welcome to common-law marriage:

  • In Texas, common-law marriages are legally binding if the couple present themselves publicly as husband and wife, file a joint income tax return and live together as man and wife within the state.
  • Arlington, Texas, tax-preparer Kathy Womack says she has had to warn couples many times that filing a joint tax return establishes the legality of a common-law marriage in Texas; that's usually when the filers change their minds.
  • A special form may be filed in any county clerk's office to legalize a common-law marriage.
  • A formal divorce is required to end a common-law marriage if there are children involved or if the couple has undivided property and debts.

Common-law marriages are recognized in only 15 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Alternatives to Marriage Protect. In 2000, there were 3.8 million households classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as unmarried-partner households, representing 3.7 percent of all households in the United States. up from 523,000 in 1970.

Sources: Shirley Jinkins, "A Tax that Binds," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 5, 2004; see also Jason Fields and Lynne M. Casper, "America's Families and Living Arrangements," Current Population Report P20-537, June 2001, U.S. Census Bureau; see also Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, "Demystifying Common Law Marriage," Alternatives to Marriage Project.

For Census report


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