Although Iowa recognizes common law marriages, state law has specific requirements governing when relationships may be classified as such. First, a couple must intend and agree to be married. However, this intent must be based in the present rather than some future plan to be married. Next, couples must have continuously lived together. Last, and perhaps most important, couples must hold themselves out to the public as married. There is no such thing as a "secret" common law marriage.
There is a long-enduring myth that couples automatically become common law spouses when they live together for a certain period of time. This is not true. In fact, Iowa does not require a minimum length of cohabitation to qualify for common law marriage. What is more important is that the cohabitation was continuous. If a couple only lived together occasionally, a common law marriage does not exist. Additionally, if the couple did not act like a married couple while living together -- for example, by not having a sexual relationship -- there may not be a common law marriage.
When a court must determine whether a common law marriage exists, it will look at a variety of factors. In addition to demonstrating an intent to be married and continuously living together, the court will pay particular attention to how the couple present themselves to the public and live their lives. For example, an Iowa court is likely to find a couple has entered into a common law marriage if they share a surname, wear wedding bands, tell friends and family they're married, raise children together, maintain joint bank accounts, file joint tax returns, and list one another as spouses on insurance policies and retirement plans.
There is no such thing as "common law divorce" in Iowa, so spouses who no longer wish to be married must go through the same divorce procedure as "regular" married couples. This means filing a petition for divorce and having the court decide issues of alimony, property division, child support and custody. The only difference common law spouses may experience is that the court will first have to establish that a valid common law marriage exists. Once that's done and all marital issues have been resolved, the court will issue a divorce decree and the common law marriage will be officially terminated.