California's Laws About a Common-Law Wife

By Jim Thomas

There are a number of myths about common-law marriages. For example, some people think that you must cohabit with a person for a minimum number of years to be considered a common-law wife; however, the fact is that not a single state has a designated time period. Further, some people are under the impression that common-law marriages are recognized in most, if not all, states, but the reality is that most states, including California, don't allow common-law marriages. Nonetheless, there are several circumstances in which a woman in California can be either recognized as a common-law wife or treated as if she were one in regard to certain financial issues.

Common-Law Marriage Requirements

The states that recognize common-law marriage vary in their requirements. For example, in Alabama you must have the capacity, in terms of age and mental ability, to enter into a marriage. You also must agree that you are husband and wife and consummate the relationship. If you live in the District of Columbia, you must express the intent to be married and live together. In general, states that recognize common-law marriages require that you live together and "hold out," a term that means you hold yourselves out to the world as a married couple. Actions such as taking your partner's last name and filing joint tax returns serve as evidence that you consider yourself married as common-law husband and wife.

Recognizing Common-Law Marriages

California, and every other state, will recognize your status as a common-law wife if you met the qualifications for one in another state prior to your move to California. This status enables you to claim your share of assets acquired during the common-law relationship. These assets are treated as the equivalent of community property if your relationship ends, often referred to as quasi-community property or quasi-marital property.

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In a landmark 1976 case, the California Supreme Court denied actor Lee Marvin's long-time live-in girlfriend "palimony" when their relationship ended. However, the court recognized that palimony could be grounds for a monetary award in other circumstances. In a palimony suit, also known as a "Marvin claim," partners who aren't married have the right to enforce an express or implied agreement, written or oral, for support or an equitable division of property when the couple parts. In fact, if a couple were together for a substantial period, acquired assets together during that period and then married, the wife could file both a Marvin claim and a petition for divorce if she decides to end the relationship.

Putative Wives

Under California Family Code Section 2251, you can be declared a "putative" wife if you believed your marriage was valid under California law, even if you later discover the wedding was never official. For example, if your husband was already married to someone else, your marriage is void. However, if you found out about the other woman 10 years after marrying, a court can declare you a putative spouse. You then can ask the court to divide your marital property as if it is community property.

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