There are many different forms of marital agreements (besides a legally-binding marriage) from common law marriage to civil unions and domestic partnerships.

Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage, a.k.a. informal marriage or “marriage by habit and repute,” is a marriage where the couple lives together and portrays themselves as married to the public, but haven’t obtained a marriage license. This means it is not formally recognized by the federal government and in most states.

In fact, common law marriage is only recognized as an official marriage in the following states:

  • Colorado
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • District of Columbia

And in these states, the couple has to meet strict requirements, including:

  • Both people must be over the age of 18
  • The couple must have the intent to be married.
  • The couple present themselves out to the public as being married. This may involve using the same last name, introducing each other as “husband” or “wife,” and filing joint tax returns.
  • The couple must live together as husband and wife.

Note: If you have a common law marriage in one of the states that recognize it and you split up, you need to file for a divorce.

Civil Unions

Civil unions are a legal arrangement that provides some, but not all, of the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.

In a civil union, the couple needs to obtain a “civil union certificate” and have a civil union ceremony that recognizes their relationship. They’ll also need to provide necessary documentation (i.e. ID, proof of residence, etc) and pay any state fees.

While civil unions provide some legal protections and benefits to same-sex couples, they are not the same as marriage and do not have all the same legal rights and benefits.

In fact, civil unions are only recognized in these 5 US states:

  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Vermont
  • New Jersey

The specific protections and rights provided by a civil union in these five states vary but typically include some or all of the following:

Property rights

Couples in a civil union may have the right to own property together, to inherit property from each other, and to make medical and financial decisions for each other.

Tax benefits

Couples in a civil union may be able to file state tax returns as a married couple and may be entitled to certain state tax benefits.

Health insurance benefits

Couples in a civil union may be able to add each other to their health insurance plans and may be entitled to certain health insurance benefits.

Retirement benefits

Couples in a civil union may be entitled to certain pension and retirement benefits, such as the ability to inherit a pension or the right to receive survivor benefits.

And, civil unions are not recognized by the federal government or in any of the other 45 states. This means that same-sex couples who are in a civil union are not entitled to the same federal benefits and protections as same-sex married couples.
In addition, civil unions can expire, be annulled, or be dissolved. However, the process varies from state to state.

For instance, in some states, a civil union can expire after a certain period of time if it is not renewed

In addition, in some states, a civil union must be dissolved or terminated by either party. The process will look similar to going through a formal divorce process.

In other states, a civil union can be annulled, which means that it is declared void or invalid. This may be possible if one party was not legally able to enter into the union (e.g., because they were already married), or if the union was entered into under duress or fraud.

Given the process varies widely from state to state, we recommend consulting a family law attorney and checking with the relevant government agencies to determine the specific process in your state.

Domestic Partnerships

A domestic partnership is a legally recognized relationship between two people who live together and are in a committed relationship, but are not married.

Domestic partnerships are similar to civil unions in that they provide certain legal protections and benefits to eligible couples who are not able to marry.

While the eligibility requirements can vary from state to state, the general requirements include:

  • Both people must be over the age of 18
  • Both partners are not married or in another domestic partnership
  • Both partners are in a committed relationship and share a domestic life

In addition, in a domestic partnership, the couple must obtain a “domestic partnership declaration.” The couple also have to register their domestic partnership with their state government, provide necessary documentation, and pay applicable fees.

Just like with civil unions, domestic partnerships are not the same as marriage and are only recognized in a handful of states, including:

  • California
  • District of Columbia
  • Maine
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Hawaii (However, domestic relationships are referred to as reciprocal beneficiaries in Hawaii)

The level of protections that domestic partners have across insurance, tax, retirement and property rights also varies across these states.

In addition, domestic partnerships are not recognized by the federal government or in any state that is not listed above.

If you want to convert your domestic partnership into a legally-binding marriage, it is a good idea to consult a family law attorney. That’s because in some states you can convert a domestic partnership into a marriage. In other states, you have to legally dissolve the domestic partnership before getting married.

Browse more family law articles.