Does Alabama Recognize Common Law Marriage?

The answer to that questions is yes and no.

In 2016, the Alabama Legislature passed a law banning the recognition of new common law marriage.

Since January 1, 2017, couples who seek marriage can no longer hold themselves out to the public as husband and wife. They must legally get married. Since 2017, couples seeking marriage must take a few steps to become legally married.  The steps are as follows:

  1. the couple must engage in a ceremony that is solemnized by minister or other qualified person and,
  2. the couple must provide appropriate marriage documents to a probate court, and either receive a marriage license or otherwise have the marriage recorded.

With the new law, any common law marriages that began prior to January 1, 2017 will continue to be recognized.

To be common law married in Alabama, you must:

  1. be legally be able to marry (eg: neither party is already married, the parties are of legal age, the parties are not closely related)
  2. intend to marry and
  3. hold themselves as married. There are numerous ways the parties could “hold themselves out as married” such as filing joint tax returns, signing a lease together, and telling friends and family that they are married.

If a common-law marriage has been established before January 1, 2017, it is treated for all legal purposes as a regular marriage.

A few pros and cons of common law marriage

The Pros

  • Couples who were common law married before the start of 2017 enjoy all the same rights and responsibilities regarding the division of property and custody just like any other married couple.
  • Having children out of traditional wedlock is now much more acceptable than in years past.
  • Parties seeking social security benefits will have a much stronger case for survivor benefits in a common law marriage than if they’re simply cohabitating.
  • A valid common law marriage can include the right to make medical decisions for a disabled spouse, the right to a formal divorce and the ability to inherit a spouse’s property.

The Cons

  • Common law marriage can be confusing when courts need to get involved to settle related issues.  As a result, the evidentiary standard in proving a common law marriage existed is hard to overcome.
  • If you are in a legally recognized common law marriage, you must get a divorce to end the relationship.