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Virtually everyone has heard about common law marriage, but just what is it – and is it real or not?

First, all of the following information is applicable under Pennsylvania law (although it could be the same elsewhere).

Second, let’s talk about what is NOT a common law marriage. Ever heard, “We’ve/they’ve been together seven years, so it’s common law”? Bogus! The length of time a couple has been together, from one minute to one century, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they are married under common law. 

Third, Pennsylvania does not recognize any common law marriage (that is, non-ceremonial without a marriage license) entered into on or after January 1, 2005.

Fourth, common law marriages are in fact real marriages and can only be ended by the death of a spouse, annulment or divorce, the same as a ceremonial marriage with a marriage license or certificate and a legal officiant (just a fancy term for the people most of us recognize as performing marriage ceremonies). 

As stated above, a common law marriage has to be entered into before January 1, 2005, to be lawful in our state and it requires an intent to be married and an exchange of promises. Hold on for a minute before you say that you had no intent and/or never exchanged promises. There are other circumstances that can create a legal, binding common law marriage. Holding yourselves out in your community as a married couple by words or actions is one. Another is completing documentation as a married couple, such as a joint tax return, a hospital admission form, insurance policy, death or another benefit form, deed, lease or maybe even a change of address form. And note that none of the foregoing mentioned any length of time together. As explained above, the length of time together has nothing to do with it, whether it’s a very short duration or many years.

People who choose to ignore circumstances or facts that could have created a binding, lawful common law marriage and just walk away from it could make extremely serious problems for themselves (while they are alive) or for others (after death), such as widows, widowers, children and other relatives who stand to gain or lose financially in a will or estate or tax problems, for example. While you’re alive, if you walk away as described above and remarry, well, bigamy is a felony with the potential for some serious jail time. (And, no, I do not know whether or not you could have visits from both spouses.)

The lesson here is that a cheap Pennsylvania divorce is affordable insurance to make sure that you are no longer married to a possible common-law spouse, especially compared to the very high expense of the problems one could face by just walking away.