State courts have changed the meaning of common-law marriage

On Behalf of | Mar 25, 2021 | Family Law |

Only a handful of states recognize common law marriage, but Colorado is still one of them. In a common-law marriage, a couple lives as though they have married, typically cohabitating, filing taxes together and presenting themselves to the community as spouses. What they don’t do is formally attach to each other.

Since they don’t have a church service or go through the court, these couples sometimes lose out on the benefits of marriage. Common-law marriage gives committed couples rights under the law and also protects dependent partners who technically become common-law spouses from abandonment and financial devastation.

Colorado has recently revisited its approach to common-law marriages, which could have implications for your rights if you are in a long-term relationship that has not resulted in a marriage.

What has changed with common-law marriages in Colorado?

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on not one but three different legal cases involving the issue of common-law marriage earlier this year. These cases included one where a man told his live-in girlfriend that he didn’t believe in the idea of marriage.

The courts upheld the man’s assertion that their long-term relationship did not constitute a common-law marriage and thus did not qualify for property division and other divorce proceedings. The ruling establishes a new standard that requires the courts to look at a totality of factors and not just cohabitation or the decision to file taxes jointly.

Another case required the lower probate courts to re-examine a case where a deceased man’s ex-wife and girlfriend claiming common-law marriage status both wanted to manage his estate. Another case involved LGBT+ issues, allowing the courts to effectively remove sex-specific terminology from the common-law marriage considerations in the state.

Common-law marriages often only come up when a relationship ends

Unless there’s a need for health benefits or medical access during hospitalization, many common-law couples don’t take any steps to formalize their relationship until it ends. Then, one partner realizes that they have limited legal rights unless they take action.

If you believe that your long-term relationship constitutes a common-law marriage, you may need to dissolve your marriage or go through a divorce in order to properly manage its end.