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Common Law Marriage in Tennessee: Is it legal?

Does Tennessee recognize common law marriage? Read on for the answer to that question and info about the rights of unmarried couples in TN.

evident Editorial Team
April 2, 2024
Nashville, TN skyline

If you're in a long-term relationship in Tennessee, you may wonder, "Is common law marriage recognized in Tennessee?"

The answer is usually no, but it may depend on a given couple's circumstances.

To unpack the status of couples who decide not to have a formal marriage, this article will explain:

  • What common law marriage is
  • Whether Tennessee recognizes common law marriage
  • What the rights are of unmarried couples in Tennessee
  • And more.

Let's start with an overview of what common law marriage is.

Key Takeaways

What is common law marriage?

A common law marriage is sometimes formed when a couple does not legally marry but is still treated as a married couple under the law due to meeting other criteria. That criteria varies based on state law, and importantly, not all states recognize common law marriage.

These days, a minority of states still recognize common law marriage, while the overall trend has shifted away from recognizing them over time.

Broadly speaking, the elements required to form a common law marriage include:

  • The partners hold themselves out as married to family, friends, and the public
  • The partners are legally capable of marrying (e.g. they are of a legal age and not already married)
  • The partners mutually intend to be married

Note that there is typically no minimum number of years that an unmarried couple must live together to form a valid common law marriage. There is also no amount of time spent living together that will create a common law marriage in a state where they are not recognized.

Whether or not an unmarried couple is in a common law marriage matters because being married has legal benefits that don't apply to unmarried couples. Common law spouses often get many of these same rights and benefits, such as:

  • The right to inherit property from a common law spouse when they pass
  • The right to alimony or spousal support
  • The right to split marital property in the event of a separation or divorce

As mentioned, though, the specifics often vary according to state law.

Does Tennessee recognize common law marriage?

No, Tennessee does not recognize common law marriages formed within the state, regardless of how long a couple has lived together. If an unmarried couple in Tennessee wants the rights and benefits that come with being married, it would be wise to consider a legal marriage with a marriage license and all the formalities.

The exception to this general rule is if a couple moves to TN from a common law marriage state having already established a valid common law marriage before moving. In such situations, Tennessee will recognize such couples as being common law married.

Generally speaking, though, Tennessee common law marriages are not legal and unwed partners will not be considered married even if they have cohabitated for a long time or hold themselves out as being married.

How to ensure your rights when you're unmarried

laptop, office, contract

So, what happens if a cohabitating couple splits up without a valid marriage? What are the rights of unmarried couples when it comes to property division or inheritance?

Compared to a divorce in Tennessee, a cohabitating couple that splits up has far less legal protection under Tennessee cohabitation laws. The same is true for a cohabitating couple that stays together but then one partner passes away.

If you want to protect against these scenarios but also don't want a formal marriage, there are a few steps that you can take.

Cohabitation Agreements & Joint Ownership

One option is to draft a cohabitation agreement with your partner. A cohabitation agreement is basically a contract that outlines certain rights and obligations of two people living together.

When people are in long-term relationships, and particularly when they live together, their finances can get intertwined in ways that can get messy if the couple ever splits up. Putting down in writing what belongs to whom and clarifying any other property interests can ensure that one partner is not caught out if a relationship goes south. Note that these agreements cannot address certain issues, though, such as child custody or inheritance rights.

Similarly, joint bank accounts might make more sense for married couples, but joint ownership of property can help clarify when both partners share an interest in property, whether it be a mortgage, a car, or something else. Otherwise, one partner could be disadvantaged if they contributed to payments for a house or car, but the ownership is only in the other partner's name.

Inheritance Rights

Cohabitation agreements can help couples that separate but don't go through a Tennessee divorce process. But if a couple stays together, they may want to take steps as well, specifically to ensure they have inheritance rights if one partner passes.

Spouses with a valid marriage typically have inheritance rights by virtue of being legally married. Unmarried couples do not. In those scenarios, the deceased person's estate goes into probate and their property is distributed according to Tennessee's intestacy laws. These laws simply establish a hierarchy for who inherits a decedent's property, starting with their children (if they have any), followed by various other family members.

If an unmarried couple wants to establish each other's right to inherit from the other, they should draft a will to ensure their property is distributed the way they want. There are cost-effective ways to make a will, and doing so can often avoid far more costly issues and ensure a person's last wishes are respected.

FAQs about Common Law Marriage in TN

How long do you have to be together for common law marriage in Tennessee?

Common law marriage in TN is not recognized for unmarried couples living in the state. To be legally married without a formal marriage, a couple must have established their common law marriage while living in another state and be able to prove that they did so before moving to Tennessee.

There is typically no specific number of years that a couple must have been together, but remember that the rules vary even among the common law marriage states.

What constitutes a common law marriage in Tennessee?

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As discussed, Tennessee does not recognize common law marriages. The only thing that constitutes common law marriage in TN is if a couple was common law married before moving to the state and can prove they met the criteria to be legally married in that common law marriage state.

For couples living within the state, though, there is no Tennessee common law marriage, regardless of how long the couple has lived together.

What are the rights of unmarried couples living together in Tennessee?

The short answer is that unmarried couples generally do not share any of the rights that come with a valid marriage. There are steps unmarried couples can take if they want to clarify or establish property rights, such as drafting a cohabitation agreement.

But absent a valid marriage, unmarried couples do not naturally have any shared property rights or a right to inherit from their partner, for instance.

Common Law Marriage in TN: The Bottom Line

So, is common law marriage recognized in Tennessee? No, unless a couple was common law married when they moved to the state. Besides that, though, common law marriage is not recognized in Tennessee regardless of how long a couple has cohabitated or been in a relationship.

To get the legal rights that accompany marriage in Tennessee, couples should get officially married. Otherwise, a Tennessee court will not give unmarried couples the property rights or inheritance rights that married couples are entitled to.

If a Tennessee couple does not want to get legally married, alternative steps that can ensure some legal rights are to draft a cohabitation agreement or make a will. These steps, though, do not carry all the legal benefits of being married and cannot affect certain things, such as child custody or child support arrangements.

If you have other questions, consider speaking with a Tennessee family law lawyer today.