Monday, March 24, 2003

Misconceptions over rules on common law marriage

A story published today in the El Paso Times tries to clarify misconceptions many people have about when a man and woman are considered to be in a "common law marriage."

The story points out that not knowing what a common law marriage is can prove costly for many couples who live together.

Some people may believe that if they live together for six months (or some other magical number), they will become common law spouses.

Lower Valley resident Maria Montoya believes living with someone for more than five years entitles you to some marital rights.

"After five or even 10 years of living together, you're considered married," Montoya said. "And if you break up, I think you should split stuff 50/50."

Well, that's not exactly correct according to most United States laws. In fact, most states do not recognize common law marriages. No matter how many years you live with someone, you will never have a common law marriage. That's good news if you are worried about "accidentally" finding yourself married but bad news if you wanted the perks of marriage without the paperwork.

West Side resident Chris Olivares decided to live with his girlfriend without getting married to avoid a messy breakup.

"We didn't need a piece of paper to commit to each other," he said. "Also, both our parents were divorced, and we saw all the hassles they went through. We didn't want to go through all that stress and expense."

Unfortunately for Olivares, breaking up was not as easy as he had hoped.

"Well, I made the mistake of putting both our names on stuff like my car, house and credit cards. We did it because using both our credits and incomes, we were able to get bigger loans for those things," Olivares said. "But when we broke up, she got a lawyer and got everything. She was able to prove that we were married because we supposedly acted like we were married."

El Paso lawyer Harvey Erxleben said Texas is one of the few states that recognizes common law marriages.

"If you do not want to be considered married, you must not claim each other as husband and wife neither in writing or verbally," Erxleben said.

Erxleben lists three requirements you must meet before the state recognizes you as married by common law. First, you must hold yourself to the community as married. That means referring to each other as husband and wife in public. Second, you have an agreement either orally or in writing that you agree to be married. Third, you must live together.

Jared Laskin, author of "What You Should Know Before You Move In Together," points out that cohabitation agreements can save couple lots of money and stress.

"One of the most important differences between marriage and unmarried cohabitation is that while marriage involves a highly defined set of rights and obligations, unmarried cohabitation does not," Laskin said. "While some might say this is exactly the reason they want to avoid marriage, the lack of clear legal rules and built-in protections can result in unpleasant surprises."



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