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Heather Jones

Today, common-law marriage does still exist in a few states. The term common law marriage means that even though you do not have a marriage license or any other official legal documents to show that you have formed a binding relationship with another person, the courts could still view the relationship as a legally binding one, with all the associated pros and cons. Under family law, common law marriage started in the late 1800s, and while it has mostly fallen out of use, some states still recognize its existence. People can often confuse cohabitation with common law marriage, although the two are very different. The state of Illinois does not allow common-law marriage, but the Illinois courts will recognize it in certain circumstances.

A couple in their homho


What is Common Law Marriage Exactly?


A common law marriage is when two people who have never legally married cohabitate and mingle finances for a certain period of time can be recognized as spouses. The commonly held belief is that if you live together as a couple for seven years or more, that constitutes a “common law marriage.” An essential element of common law marriage is that the couple holds themselves out to family, friends, and the general public as “being married,” even though they have never purchased a marriage license. The couple must also not be married to anyone else for the duration of the common law marriage. It is important to understand that simply living together is not enough to qualify your relationship as a common law marriage.  


Some factors that a court would look at when determining if a common law marriage exists are:  


  • Did one person take the other person’s last name?  
  • Did the couple sign contracts together to purchase something significant, like a home or a car?  
  • Did the couple file joint tax returns or have joint bank accounts?  
  • Did the couple have children together?  
  • Did the couple share household expenses?  


Again, remember that these things would only be considered in a state that recognizes common law marriage. An additional thing to consider is that if you are not careful, you could end up being in what a court would consider a common law marriage without meaning to, so think carefully before deciding to co-mingle with someone you are in a relationship with. In a worst-case scenario, you could end up having to split up your life just as though you had actually been legally married.  For more information on how to protect your assets read our article When To Get A Cohabitation Agreement.

If Cohabitation is Not Common Law Marriage, What Is It?


When people cohabitate, they do not fully hold themselves out as a married couple or seek to co-mingle their lives and financial assets. Simply put, if two people are dating and living together, they are cohabitating, but they are not in a common law marriage. They have separate finances, retain their separate last names, and do not tell people that they are married or otherwise seek to live as a legally married couple would.  



Is There Common Law Marriage in Illinois?


The bottom line is that Illinois does not legally allow common law marriage. In rare circumstances, Illinois will divorce a couple in a common law marriage if it was formed in another state, and that couple can prove they meet the requirements of common law marriage in that state. For example, a couple who lived in Kansas for ten years and met the legal requirements of the state of Kansas for common law marriage can ask that the state of Illinois divide their assets like it would in any other divorce. The catch here is that the couple will have to take extra steps to show that their common law marriage is valid in the state they previously lived in.  


What If You Have a Common Law Marriage Recognized by Another State?


There are a few states left that do allow common law marriage. The states of Utah, Texas (this state refers to it as “informal marriage”), Kansas, Iowa, Montana, Colorado, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia all allow common law marriage. The state of New Hampshire will recognize common law marriage for the purposes of inheritance.  


Illinois only recognizes common law marriages in rare circumstances. This can happen if the marriage was formed in one of the states above that allows it, and the couple can prove they meet that state’s requirements. Illinois will divide assets if you can prove that your common law marriage meets the requirements of the state it was created in.  

A couple having coffee


Does Illinois Offer Any Legal Protection to Parties Who Cohabitate?


The state of Illinois does not offer any legal protection if you are cohabitating and the two of you break up. If there are children from the relationship, the state has laws governing child custody and child support. If a cohabitation relationship ends, each party has no legal right to the other party’s assets. One way to potentially avoid being left out in the cold if you are cohabitating with someone is to create and sign a cohabitation agreement, which could be enforceable in a court of law. A cohabitation agreement can dictate what, if anything, will be divided if and when the couple breaks up. If you and your partner are considering making more significant purchases together, like a home or a vehicle, you should discuss having a cohabitation agreement drafted and signed before making any financial decisions. People often ignore the possibility of a breakup when things are going well, only to find out five years later that they have been sinking money into a relationship that would end and with a partner who will not act with integrity if not forced to by a written contract.  For more specifics on what can effect a cohabitation agreement read our article, How Does Cohabitation Affect Spousal Maintenance Or Alimony In Illinois?

 Parental Rights and Child Custody for Unmarried Couples

Photo of a family law attorney providing legal advice to a couple

Parental rights and child custody are another crucial aspect of cohabitation. In Illinois, paternity for children of unmarried couples can be legally established by the court under the Parentage Act or by both parents signing a voluntary acknowledgment form. The law dictates that custody or support decisions for children of unmarried couples are made based on the child’s best interests, irrespective of the parents’ marital status.

Cohabitation agreements can include provisions regarding financial support or visitation rights, but issues of child custody and child support require court approval and are assessed based on the child’s best interests. This can be a complex process, and family law attorneys can advise on how to navigate the limitations of cohabitation agreements, ensuring parents understand that these agreements cannot legally determine child custody or support.

While cohabitation agreements can provide some level of legal protection, they are not a substitute for the rights and obligations provided by a legally recognized marriage. This is particularly relevant for couples who entered into a common law marriage in a state that allows such unions and then moved to Illinois.

 Frequently Asked Questions

How long do you have to live together to be common law in Illinois?

No, you cannot become common law married in Illinois regardless of how long you live together. Illinois does not recognize common law marriage.

What is Illinois cohabitation law?

In Illinois, there is no legal protection for cohabitating couples in the event of a breakup, and each party has no legal right to the other's assets.

What is it called when you live with someone for 7 years but not married?

Living with someone for 7 years without being married does not automatically result in a common law marriage, as there is no specific time frame set by any state for cohabitation. Common law marriage is a widely misunderstood concept.

What is a common law marriage?

A common law marriage is a legally binding relationship that does not require a marriage license or official legal documents. It typically involves cohabitation, shared finances, and presenting as a married couple to the public.

How can a common law marriage be legally ended in Illinois?

In Illinois, to end a common law marriage, the couple needs to provide evidence of the marriage's conformity to state requirements and go through a formal divorce process.

If you previously lived in a state that allowed common law marriage and now live in Illinois, there are some options available to you to retain your half of the assets that were acquired during the relationship. The most important thing you can do is to find and safeguard any evidence that will prove to a court of law that you were involved in a common law marriage. You should also schedule a consultation with an experienced Illinois family law attorney to see that your legal rights are protected. If you are considering or in the process of trying to divide assets in a common law marriage from another state, feel free to give O’Flaherty Law a call, we would be happy to help you.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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