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Common Law Marriage in Missouri: Is it recognized?

Does Missouri recognize common law marriage? Read on for the answer to that question and info about how it differs from neighboring states.

evident Editorial Team
March 12, 2024
St. Louis arch, Missouri

People in long-term relationships and cohabitating with their partner might wonder, "Does Missouri have common law marriage?" The answer for most couples is no, but with a limited exception.

This article will explain everything you need to know about Missouri common law marriage, including:

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

Before addressing common law marriage in Missouri, it's helpful to understand what common law marriage is generally and why it matters. Let's start with an overview of common law marriage.

Key Takeaways

What is Common Law Marriage?

Common law marriage is a type of legal relationship between couples in long-term, cohabitating relationships that is similar to marriage but does not involve a traditional, legal marriage.

Some states recognize common law marriages while others do not, and there has generally been a trend away from recognizing them over time. States that recognize common law marriage include Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Meanwhile, states like Illinois and Tennessee typically don't recognize common law marriage.

Legal Criteria for Establishing Common Law Marriage

The precise criteria for establishing a valid common law marriage vary from state to state. Typically, though, legal requirements for establishing a common law marriage include the following:

  • Legally Eligible to Marry: the partners are of legal age and not already married to someone else, for instance
  • Public Introduction: the partners introduce themselves as being married to friends, family, and the public
  • Mutual Intent: The couple mutually intends to be married

There is often no specific number of years that an unmarried couple must have cohabitated to establish a common law marriage, despite myths like the "7-year rule" to the contrary. Further, the number of years a couple has lived together will not automatically qualify the couple for common law marriage if they do not meet the other criteria. (E.g. a couple has lived together for twenty years but does not hold themselves out as married).

Why it Matters

A valid marriage doesn't just signal a relationship status. It is also a legal status that comes with certain rights and benefits that unmarried couples do not get. Common law marriage, though, bestows some of those same legal rights and benefits that are normally reserved for married couples.

Again, similar to the specific legal requirements, the benefits that come with common law marriage can vary from state to state. Generally, though, legal rights granted to common law spouses include:

  • The right to inherit from a spouse when they pass away
  • Rights to marital property if the couple divorces
  • A right to spousal support (or alimony)

Thus, even without a marriage license and formal ceremony, some couples can enjoy significant legal rights in circumstances where common law marriage is recognized.

Is there common law marriage in Missouri?

So, is common law marriage recognized in Missouri? Generally, no, with a limited exception.

Missouri does not recognize common law marriages between couples living in the state, regardless of how long they have cohabitated or how they hold themselves out to the public.

However, as with other states, Missouri will recognize a common law marriage that was formed in a common law marriage state before the couple moved to Missouri. The Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires states to give full faith and credit to the laws of other states, which is why all states recognize validly formed common law marriages from states where they are legal.

(Note that there generally is no such thing as common law divorce, even in common law marriage states. If a couple is considered married, including at common law, they would need to go through a formal divorce or separation process to end their marriage).

Again, though, Missouri common law marriage is not available to couples residing within the state. If a cohabitating couple wants the rights and protections that accompany marriage, there best option is to get officially married.

Given that Missouri common law marriage is not available for cohabitating couples, what rights to unmarried couples have in the state? Generally, they have far fewer rights than married couples, but there are a few ways they can clarify and establish rights with respect to each other without getting married.

Property Rights Of Unmarried Couples

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So, without Missouri common law marriage as an option, what property rights do unmarried couples have in the state? Generally, unmarried partners in the state do not have any rights to each other's property.

This differs from married couples, who have a right to a share of marital property in the event of a divorce. Thus, things can get complicated if an unmarried couple splits up after a long period of cohabitation, given the way that a couple's financial lives can become intertwined over time.

One way that couples in a long-term cohabitating relationship can do to clarify and protect their property rights is to draft a cohabitation agreement. Cohabitation agreements are contracts between adults living together that can spell out and establish each party's rights with respect to certain aspects of the parties' property and finances. They can be particularly useful if one or both individuals have substantial assets.

There are some limitations to cohabitation agreements, though. A cohabitation agreement typically cannot change a person's rights or obligations with respect to child support or child custody. Such issues are determined by Missouri law, which prioritizes whatever is in the best interests' of the child. That said, cohabitation agreements can still be useful for clearly defining each party's property rights in situations where that can otherwise get confusing.

Another way that cohabitating couples can manage the complexity of finances that sometimes accompany long-term relationships is through joint ownership of property. Making sure that significant assets (such as a house or car) are in both partners' names can help document and clarify situations when both partners share an interest in the property.

This can help prevent the scenario where on party is at a disadvantage if they contributed financially to jointly used assets but don't have ownership under their name. (For instance, imagine if one partner covered other expenses such as groceries so that their partner could make payments on a car, but the car is only in their partner's name).

Unmarried Couples and Inheritance Rights

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As mentioned, another key legal right of spouses is the right to inherit assets from their spouse when they pass away. Unmarried couples do not automatically have this right, no matter how long they have cohabitated or been in a relationship.

Instead, unmarried partners would need to draft a will to dictate how they want their assets distributed upon their death, as well as laying out any other final wishes (such as guardianship over a child, for instance).

If a person does not write a will, their estate goes through probate, and Missouri's laws of intestacy dictate how their property is distributed. Typically, these laws prioritize any surviving spouse, then any children or descendants, and then other family, such as parents or siblings. In fact, a decedent's property could be escheated to the state of Missouri rather than an unmarried partner.

Therefore, if unmarried partners want to leave any assets to each other, they should draft a will so that they can dictate how their legacy is handled, not the default under state law. Fortunately, the cost to make a will is not as much as you might think, and you can always update it later if your preferences change.

FAQs about Missouri Common Law Marriage

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

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Because Missouri does not recognize common law marriage, it does not matter how long a couple has been together to be eligible for common law marriage. Regardless of how many years they have been together, they cannot form a Missouri common law marriage.

The only way to have a valid common law marriage within the state is if a couple was common law married before moving to Missouri and met the necessary legal requirements in a common law marriage state.

What are the rules for domestic partners in Missouri?

A domestic partnership is another legal status for unmarried, cohabitating couples, but domestic partnerships are only recognized in certain cities within Missouri. Domestic partnerships have generally declined since the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The St. Louis municipal code defines domestic partners as: "two persons, both of whom are eighteen years of age or older, neither of whom is married or related by blood to the other in a manner that would bar marriage in the State of Missouri, who have a close and committed personal relationship, who live together and have been living together on a continuous basis, and who have registered as domestic partners and have not terminated the domestic partnership. . ."

Domestic partners get certain rights, such as hospital visitation rights and parental leave benefits, that other couples do not. Domestic partners do not get the full benefits of a valid marriage, however.

Is Kansas a common law marriage state?

Yes, Kansas is a common law marriage state. Unlike Missouri, couples can become common law married based on their relationship within the state.

Additionally, a common law marriage formed within Kansas will be recognized in the state of Missouri due to the Constitution's Full Faith & Credit clause. As noted, though, the couple must have a valid common law marriage before moving from Kansas to Missouri.

The Final Word on Common Law Marriage in Missouri

So, does Missouri recognize common law marriage? No, not for couples who cohabitate within the state.

If a couple establishes a common law marriage in a state where they are legal, such as Kansas, then Missouri will recognize their common law marriage. But remember, it must have been established before the couple moved to Missouri and have met the necessary criteria within the common law marriage state in which the couple lived.

If you have questions about your rights, consider speaking with a Missouri family law lawyer today.