Everything You Need to Understand About Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage is a legal concept that recognizes a couple as married without them having formally registered their marriage with the state. It’s an arrangement that provides certain rights and obligations akin to traditional marriage. 

Understanding the requirements, benefits, and misconceptions surrounding common law marriage is crucial for couples considering this union. This blog explores common law marriage, South Carolina particularly, highlighting its requirements, benefits, and dispelling myths associated with it.

What Are the Requirements for Common Law Marriage?

Common law marriage in South Carolina, like in other states, involves specific criteria that must be met for the union to be recognized legally:

Mutual Agreement

Both partners must agree and consent to the marriage. Simply living together without this mutual understanding isn’t sufficient.


The couple must live together continuously and present themselves to the community as married. Cohabitation is a critical element that distinguishes common law marriage from other domestic arrangements.


There must be an intent to be married. This can be demonstrated through actions, such as using the same last name, referring to each other as spouses, or filing joint tax returns.

Capacity to Marry

Both individuals must be legally capable of marrying, meaning they are of legal age and not already married to someone else.


South Carolina recognizes common law marriages if they were established before July 1, 2019, or if they are validly contracted in another state that recognizes such unions.

Top 7 Benefits of Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage offers several benefits to couples who choose this form of union:

1. Legal Recognition

Common law marriage provides legal recognition to couples who meet their state’s specific criteria. This recognition treats them as legally married without a formal ceremony or marriage license, entitling them to rights and responsibilities similar to traditional marriages. This includes inheritance rights, spousal support, and legal protections in the event of separation.

2. Inheritance Rights

In the absence of a will (intestate), a surviving common law spouse may inherit part or all of the deceased partner’s estate. This ensures that the surviving partner is legally entitled to assets and property left behind by their deceased spouse, similar to formally married couples.

3. Spousal Support (Alimony)

Common law spouses may qualify for spousal support (alimony) if they separate or divorce, based on factors such as financial dependency during the marriage, the duration of the marriage, and each spouse’s earning capacity. This financial support aims to maintain a similar standard of living post-divorce.

4. Access to Benefits

Common law spouses may access benefits that are typically available to legally married couples. This includes health insurance coverage through a spouse’s employer-sponsored plan, retirement benefits like pensions or 401(k) plans, and survivor benefits in the event of the partner’s death, providing financial security.

5. Tax Benefits

Eligibility for joint tax filing can lower tax rates and increase deductions for common law spouses, which are not available to unmarried individuals. Filing jointly may lead to reduced tax liability and eligibility for tax credits designed for married couples, enhancing financial planning opportunities.

6. Parental Rights

In the context of children born during the common law marriage, both spouses have parental rights, including custody, visitation, and decision-making in their upbringing. Legal mechanisms are in place to establish parental responsibilities and rights, ensuring the well-being of the children in case of separation or divorce.

7. Medical Decision-making

Common law spouses may have the legal authority to make medical decisions on behalf of their incapacitated partner. This includes decisions regarding healthcare treatment, surgery, and end-of-life care if the incapacitated spouse is unable to communicate their wishes, ensuring their healthcare needs are met.

False Considerations About Common Law Marriage

Despite its legal recognition and benefits, common law marriage is often misunderstood. Here are some common misconceptions:

Myth 1: Time Together Equals Common Law Marriage: Simply living together for a certain period does not automatically result in a common law marriage. Specific legal requirements must be met, as outlined earlier.

Myth 2: Common Law Divorce: Ending a common law marriage requires a legal divorce, just like any formal marriage. Simply ceasing to live together does not dissolve the union.

Myth 3: Common Law Marriage Everywhere: Not all states recognize common law marriage. Each state has its own laws and criteria for establishing this type of union.

Myth 4: Limited Rights: Common law spouses have similar legal rights and responsibilities as traditionally married couples, including inheritance rights, medical decision-making, and spousal support.


Understanding common law marriage, particularly in South Carolina, is essential for couples considering this legal arrangement. By meeting specific requirements—mutual agreement, cohabitation, intent, and capacity to marry—couples can establish a valid common law marriage. 

This union offers legal recognition and benefits similar to formal marriages, including financial advantages and inheritance rights. However, misconceptions abound, such as the belief that time together automatically results in marriage or that common law divorce is simpler. 

Clearing up these misunderstandings ensures that couples make informed decisions about their legal status and rights. Whether choosing a common law marriage or a formal ceremony, knowing the facts helps couples navigate their relationship with clarity and legal protection.

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