Does Georgia Recognize Common Law Marriage?

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May 24, 2024 | Content

Couples sometimes decide to make a life together but never formalize it with a marriage. In the past, long-term relationships like these were called common-law marriages. The partners in a common law marriage had many of the same rights people in formal marriages had.

Georgia has not recognized common-law marriage since 1997. Common law marriages established before 1997 are still valid. In addition, when people establish a common law marriage elsewhere, Georgia will recognize it if they move to the state.

Why Recognition Matters

When the state recognized common law marriages, the spouses had many of the rights afforded couples with formal marriages. For example, they were considered each other’s next of kin and could make emergency medical decisions for each other. They were both the legal parents of any children born of the relationship.

Spouses in a common law marriage could establish a joint bank account and many commingled their finances. Property they acquired while in the relationship was considered marital property. They could inherit from each other and receive spousal benefits like health insurance from an employer.

Common law marriage requires more than just living together. The couple had to be over 18 and heterosexual because the state did not recognize same-sex marriage in 1997. The couple had to intend to marry and must have held themselves out as married, meaning that they referred to themselves as married and handled their finances and personal matters as if they were married.

Ending a Common Law Marriage

A couple with a recognized common law marriage must get a divorce if they decide to end the relationship. There are unique challenges when a couple with a common law marriage seeks a divorce, so it is especially important to work with an experienced attorney.

The length of the marriage impacts decisions regarding property division and alimony. Because the couple never had a formal ceremony, determining how long they have been in a common law marriage can be difficult.

There is no difference in the way the courts interpret parental rights for parents in a common law marriage. In accordance with the Official Code of Georgia §19-9-3, child custody, child support, and parenting time are decided according to the best interests of the children.

Protect Yourself When You Live With a Partner Outside of Marriage

Couples no longer have the option to establish a common law marriage in Georgia. When they cohabitate, they do not gain the legal rights a married couple would have. Some counties and cities in the state offer the opportunity to register a relationship as a domestic partnership, but eligibility is sometimes limited to public employees or same-sex couples.

Couples who choose to live together but do not marry can use a contract to protect some of their rights. The couple can establish which property is joint and which is separate, and how they will divide joint property if they break up. However, these joint property agreements must be drafted carefully, or the courts will not enforce them.

Cohabitating couples in committed relationships should ensure they hold each other’s power of attorney and can make emergency healthcare decisions for each other. They should consider creating wills giving each other inheritance rights. When a cohabitating couple has a child, only the mother has parental rights. The father must take steps to legitimize the child and establish paternity and the right to custody. A skilled attorney can advise a cohabitating couple about other steps they may wish to take to protect themselves and each other.

Talk to a Local Attorney About Common Law Marriage and Cohabitation

Georgia still recognizes common law marriages if they were established in the state before 1997, or the couple entered a common law marriage in another state and then moved here. When a couple began a relationship after 1997 in Georgia, common law marriage is not available to them.

The rules regarding common law marriage, common law divorce, and cohabitation are complex. Consult the Atlanta Divorce Law Group when you have questions about your rights and obligations in these relationships. Get in touch today.

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