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James Sheets

In Iowa, there are two ways that a person can marry. First is when there is a ceremony overseen by a civil official or religious cleric authorized to perform a marriage ceremony. Second is when two people can be married under common law, meaning a marriage that has developed over when the two people consider themselves married even though they have not officially married in a ceremony.  

Iowa, as well as several other states, had long recognized common law marriage. In some ways, this reflects a certain amount of common sense. Two adults living together for a period of time, or cohabitating, can develop a type of relationship identical to a traditional marriage formalized by a ceremony.   The determination of a common law marriage in Iowa can be a very complex manner. You should seek the help of an experienced Iowa family law attorney. Read on to get a general idea of how to prove common law marriage in Iowa.  

How is a Relationship Identified as Marriage Under Common Law in Iowa?

It is essential to remember that simply living together or cohabitating alone is insufficient to create a common-law marriage. The Courts of Iowa had identified three crucial factors in examining if a relationship exists under common law as a marriage.  

First Factor for Identifying Common Law Marriage

The first factor is whether the parties have, at the time of their cohabitation, the mutual intent to be freely married to one another or have an agreement between themselves to live as spouses to one another. This agreement can be expressed - or verbally agreed upon - or it can be tacit or implied, meaning there is within both parties the unspoken intent to live with one another as the married persona.   In understanding intent, courts will also sometimes consider whether the conduct of the parties and their general reputation in their community as evidence of present intent to be married. If the intent to be married is only the intent to become married in the future, this will not be sufficient to establish a common-law marriage. Also, if the intent is not continuous but fluctuates over time, then there is no “meeting of the minds” that reflects a common law marriage.  

Common Law Partner Agreement paperwork

Second Factor for Identifying Common Law Marriage

The second factor is whether cohabitation was continuous and occurred over a period of time. While Iowa courts have not set a particular period of time as being sufficient to establish continuous cohabitation, temporary cohabitation, or cohabitation interrupted by non-cohabitation is not sufficient to establish a common law marriage. Cohabitation needs to be “continuous,” and broadly defined over a significant period. A period of several years has, in most instances, been required for a finding of common law marriage.  

Third Factor For Identifying Common Law Marriage

The third factor in establishing a common law marriage is whether the parties made any publication declaration(s) or statements to outside parties that they are married. A common law marriage cannot be a private secret in Iowa; instead, it needs to be commonly known by outside parties because there have been “general and substantial” statements made by both parties in public to this effect.      

The “holding out” of the relationship as a married relationship in public is sometimes called “the acid test of common law marriage.” This means what the parties say to other people about their relationship can be very important and binding as a statement of marriage.    

It can also mean that the parties’ statements on various public documents can be crucial. Tax returns tend to be very telling, especially if the parties file a joint return as married persons. Retirement plans which list the other party not only as a beneficiary but as the spouse can only be important. A completed health insurance application that lists the other party as the spouse can also be considered. Financial records of all sorts can also be vital. If the parties choose to keep their finances commingled or separate it can also be suggestive of whether the parties intended or did not intend to be married. Property records, too, can be considered, especially if the parties list themselves as married and/or significant commingled amounts of property.    

In examining these statements, courts will look for a record of consistency. One party holds them out as married, and the other party cannot present special considerations. This usually shows that the parties are not married, but sometimes it might be interpreted that the silence of one party in the face of such a statement being made to others is a quiet admission. After all, many people would deny such a statement when made in front of others if it were not true.    

This last requirement of holding oneself out as married can be very complicated. Thus, courts tend to decide on a case-to-case basis, considering the totality of the circumstances. If you still have questions regarding your common law marriage status, take a look at our article, Are You Really Married?  

couple hugging

What if the Relationship is Just Mutually Beneficial?

A relationship that appears to be primarily for mutual convenience and benefits will not qualify as a marriage relationship. Courts understand that people frequently come together and cohabitate for various reasons, none of which may suggest a genuine intent to be married; this includes a variety of other behaviors, such as a periodic statement or off-handed remark identifying oneself as married.    

This is particularly important when examining a relationship that comes to an end as a result of a breakup. Courts understand that a disaffected or unhappy person may try to advance a claim as a martial spouse for purposes of alimony or parental support. Courts thus tend to scrutinize all claims made on behalf of being married under common law.  

Who Has the Burden of Proof in Common Law Marriage?

One further point: the burden of proof will always be upon the person claiming a common law marriage. The evidence presented in support of a common law marriage must be “clear and convincing,” a standard which is higher than a mere “predominance of evidence,” a standard although lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt,” standard used in criminal proceedings.    

Also important, while the law of Iowa will acknowledge a common law marriage as valid, the courts do not endorse it as a public policy given the difficulties that are involved in determining if a common law marriage exists. One last point: a court will generally not recognize a claim of a common law marriage made by one person when the other person is deceased, finding that it’s legally problematic to make this type of decision when one party is not present to speak on their own behalf.  

So now you have a general idea of common law marriage in Iowa. You also have a good idea of how the courts identify common law marriage. If you still have questions around the nuances of common law marriage speak to an Iowa family law attorney who can evaluate your situation. While this article offers a streamlined explanation of common law marriage, proving one can be very complex, and you should seek the assistance of an attorney. If you are looking for help with your paternity matter, feel free to call O'Flaherty Law; 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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