Is Common Law Marriage Legal?

Board Certified Family Law Specialist Matt Arnold answers the question: “How will the judge divide our property?”

Marriage may be less popular today than it was decades ago. Back then, cohabitation was frowned upon and people were not likely to have children outside of marriage. Over the last 40 years, societal norms and conventions have changed and it is perfectly acceptable for couples to live together and even become parents outside of marriage. Many times, couples live together for a period of time before they get married. Other times, couples continue to cohabitate without ever taking marriage vows. While living together without formally getting married may suit a couple, it can make it more difficult if they decide to part ways.


What is Common Law Marriage?

Common law marriage is the recognition of a union as a marriage without a marriage license or without actually going through a legal marriage ceremony. Common law marriage was more useful in years gone by when most couples who were together for a long period of time were looked at as married due to the societal norms of the time. Typically, in places where common law marriage is recognized, a couple must live together for an extended number of years at which time they are considered married. Common law marriage is only recognized in a handful of states.


Is Common Law Marriage Legal in North Carolina?

Some couples believe that because they have been together so long, they are automatically considered married. While some states do recognize it, North Carolina does not legally recognize common-law marriage. Couples who have lived together for many years are still considered unmarried, according to the laws of the state. Only a handful of states recognize common-law marriage and North Carolina is not one of them. It is notable, however, that if you are from a state where common law marriage is recognized, other states will recognize the union.



What Happens if We Split Up?

Married couples need to go through separation or divorce when they end their union. The same does not hold true for unmarried couples. If you were not legally married, you cannot go through a regular divorce process. Couples should try to agree to the distribution of assets and property. If you have property, such as a house, that is in both of your names, you both own it and you need to divide it accordingly. Things can become quite complex and difficult when you try to divvy up property that you have been sharing over a period of time. The laws that pertain to marital property do not apply since you were never legally married. If you have issues regarding children, such as visitation, custody, and child support, these go through family court.


How Do We Resolve Issues?

When married couples divorce, they spend time trying to resolve matters and divide their property in an equitable manner. The same rules don’t apply to couples who are not married. Instead, you each have property that you alone own, whether you purchased it before or after you began your relationship. If a couple cannot come to an agreement about the division of property, they may need to take the matter to court. Instead of family court, these matters need to be dealt with in civil court. For instance, you can sue your former partner for property or money that is yours.


If you need help uncoupling, you can get the legal representation you need from our attorneys. Get a phone, video or in-person consultation by calling at (704) 370-2828 to speak with our detail-oriented and well-versed lawyers with offices in Charlotte, Lake Norman, and Monroe, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today or find additional resources here.







The family law practice group at Arnold & Smith, PLLC includes two Board-Certified Family Law specialists and one Child Welfare Law specialist, as well as several attorneys with many years of family law experience that are committed to providing a powerful voice to individuals facing the often-tumultuous issues in this area of law. The range of issues our family law clients may be facing include pre- and post-nuptial agreements; separation agreements; post-separation support; child support (both temporary and permanent); absolute divorce; divorce from bed and board; military divorce; equitable distribution of assets; child custody (both temporary and permanent); retirement benefits and divorce; alimony and spousal support; adoption; and emancipation. Because this area of the law is usually emotionally charged and complicated, the family law attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC act with the utmost dedication to ensure that each client understands his or her options, and then act to achieve the best result possible for that client’s particular situation.



Separation and Divorce | North Carolina Judicial Branch (

common law marriage | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute (


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