Family Law Info Center
Marriage is a voluntary, private contract between two adults. While it is a personal and emotional commitment, it is also a legal relationship that changes the legal status of both parties. A family law attorney can help you to understand the legal technicalities of marriage.
The legal rights and obligations associated with marriage have evolved with our society and today are the same for both spouses. Each state has its own rules about marriage, but there are some uniform principles, including:
- Who can marry whom. Each state prohibits marriage between brothers and sisters, parent and child, and some prohibit marriage between aunt or uncle and niece or nephew. Most states will not issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple.
- Age requirements. Each state has a minimum age requirement, typically 18 years old. Many states permit marriage at a younger age if parental consent is given.
- Residency requirements. Most states require one or both of the parties to reside in the state for a specific period of time before issuing a marriage license.
- Medical exam and licensing. Some states require the completion of a medical exam and blood test before issuing a marriage license. The marriage license must be issued by a designated public official.
- Ceremony and officials. Some states require a formal ceremony of some kind with witnesses and a licensed public or religious official.
There are numerous legal benefits to marriage. There are both federal and state laws available only to married people. Other benefits include Social Security benefits, inheritance rights, property rights, the ability to sue third parties for the wrongful death of a spouse or loss of consortium, and the right to make medical decisions on a spouse's behalf.
Common law marriage
Many couples believe they will achieve a common law marriage and be entitled to the legal benefits and obligations of married couples if they live together for a significant period of time. It is not quite that simple. Each state defines the requirements that must be met to legally qualify as married. Generally, a common law marriage is recognized when a heterosexual couple lives together in a common law marriage state for a significant period. Among the states that recognize common law marriage, none define the time period, but typically a ten-year-old relationship is required. The couple must also have the intent to be married, which is generally measured by whether or not the couple presents themselves to the public as a married couple. Evidence of the necessary intent includes sharing the same last name, filing joint tax returns and referring to each other as husband or wife.
Premarital and cohabitation agreements
Couples who are considering marriage or living together may benefit from talking to a family law attorney about the advantages of a premarital agreement (also called prenuptial agreement or antenuptial agreement) or a cohabitation agreement. Although not very romantic, premarital agreements are a useful tool for defining the legal relationships between two people, particularly as they relate to property. Generally, the intent of the agreement is to create a framework for handling money and property issues during the marriage or relationship and to create a roadmap for property division should the relationship eventually terminate.
Each state has its own laws about what can be included in a premarital agreement. Most states will not uphold agreements about child support and will not uphold agreements that were created fraudulently or unfairly. A number of states have also adopted the Uniform Pre-Marital Agreement Act. The Act dictates how premarital agreements should address property ownership, control, and management during the marriage and how property should be divided upon separation, divorce or death.
Contact a family law attorney
Getting married is one of the most important things people do. Hopefully, it reflects a deep emotional commitment because it also truly changes the participants' legal statuses. By understanding your rights and obligations as a married person you may more fully appreciate the step you are taking. Before you marry or move in with your partner, consult a family law lawyer to identify any future issues that you need to resolve now to keep you and your beloved on the path of matrimonial or relationship bliss.
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