Common law marriage generally refers to a marriage that is considered valid by both partners, but has not been formally registered with a state or church registry, or a formal religious service. It is only available in a limited number of places and is not available in California. Most jurisdictions in which common law marriages are available require that the couple live together and hold themselves out to the world as husband and wife. In jurisdictions that do recognize common law marriages, such a marriage has the same legal effect as a traditional ceremonial marriage in terms of the couple’s rights and obligations to each other.
While a couple residing in California cannot contract for a common law marriage, California will recognize valid common law marriages that originated in other states. In other words, if a couple entered into a valid common law marriage in Alabama, which permits common law marriage, then moves to California as a married couple, California will recognize the couple as married.
Although common law marriages are not available in California, California does recognize that in certain situations, an unmarried couple can create a contractual relationship which may form the basis for claims for partner support, sometimes referred to as “palimony” or a claim for division of assets and debts acquired during the relationship. In Marvin v. Marvin (1976) the California Supreme Court recognized that such contracts may be implied by the conduct of the parties. However, these contractual relationships are not the same as the rights and obligations that exist between a married couple, and they are generally governed by contract law rather than the California Family Code.