Talk to a top lawyer for free

Common Law Marriage in New York: Is it recognized?

Does NY recognize common law marriage? Usually not, but there are limited exceptions. Read on for everything you need to know.

evident Editorial Team
March 5, 2024
NYC skyline, icy water

Couples in long-term relationships in NY might wonder what legal rights they have and whether they can be considered common law married. But does New York recognize common law marriage?

In this article, we'll answer:

  • What common law marriage is
  • Does New York have common law marriage?
  • What rights do unmarried couples have in New York?
  • And more.

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

Key Takeaways

What is Common Law Marriage?

Common law marriages are a form of marriage recognized in some states even though the couple did not get officially married (e.g. marriage ceremony, marriage license, etc.). Over time, the number of states that recognize common law marriage has decreased, and only a minority of states recognize them today.

The exact criteria for establishing a common law marriage can vary from state to state, but typically, common legal requirements for establishing a common law marriage include:

  • The couple introduces themselves to friends, family, and the public as being married
  • The partners are legally eligible to marry, meaning they are of legal age and not already married to someone else, for instance
  • The couple has a mutual intent to be married

There is usually no minimum number of years that an unmarried couple must cohabitate to establish a valid common law marriage, despite misconceptions to the contrary. On the flip side, it does not matter how long a couple has lived together if they do not meet the other criteria for establishing a valid marriage.

Why does it matter? Marriage isn't just a relationship status; it's a legal status, and it comes with certain legal rights and benefits. Common law marriages bestow some of those same rights and benefits normally reserved for married couples.

For example, some of the benefits of common law marriage often include the following:

  • Inheritance rights when a spouse dies
  • The right to spousal support (commonly called alimony or spousal maintenance in NY)
  • Property rights if the couple gets a divorce

Remember, though, that the specifics may vary based on state law.

Is there common law marriage in New York?

No, New York does not recognize common law marriages formed within the state.

That said, New York state does recognize common law marriages formed in other states where they are legal. Thus, a couple could have a common law marriage in NY if they established a valid common law marriage before moving to New York state.

But for long-term couples cohabitating in NY, the main way to enjoy the same rights as married couples is simply to get married. That means a formal marriage ceremony, a marriage license, the whole nine yards.

What are the rights of unmarried couples in New York? Although NY does not recognize common law marriage, couples who are not legally married have some alternatives for protecting their rights within the state.

Property Rights for Unmarried Couples

real estate, property rights

In the absence of New York common law marriage, what are the property rights of unmarried couples in NY? Generally speaking, partners who are not married do not have any inherent rights to each other's property.

For married couples who get divorced in NY, property division is a core part of the divorce process and any marital settlement agreement the couple agrees upon. But things can get complicated if a couple has been in a long-term relationship and lived together for a substantial period of time.

One thing unmarried couples in NY could do to clarify and protect their respective property rights is to sign a cohabitation agreement. Cohabitation agreements are legally binding contracts between adults who live together. They can establish and clarify the parties' rights on various topics relating to the parties' property and finances. Cohabitation agreements can be particularly useful for couples in long-term relationships whose financial lives have become intertwined over time.

But keep in mind there are limitations to cohabitation agreements. For example, a cohabitation agreement cannot change rights or obligations with respect to child custody or child support. Those issues will be decided under New York law, whether or not the parties attempt to address them in their agreement.

Alternatively, joint bank accounts or joint ownership of property can help clarify and document when both partners share an interest in property, whether it be a car, a mortgage, or something else. Otherwise, one partner could be at a disadvantage if they contributed to payments for a house or car, for instance, but ownership is only in the other partner's name.

Inheritance Rights of Unmarried Couples in NY

Another key legal consequence of marriage is the right to inherit property from one's spouse. Generally, though, unmarried couples do not have inheritance rights with respect to their partners unless they draft a will (or last will and testament).

Without a will, a deceased person's property typically goes through probate and would be subject to the laws of intestacy if there is no will (which is just legalese for the state laws that dictate who someone's property and assets go to when they pass).

If unmarried partners want to establish inheritance rights, they should each draft a will. Making a will allows people to dictate how their assets are distributed after they pass, and making one is not as expensive as you might think.

Plus, if you split up, it's relatively easy to update your will to reflect any change in your circumstances.

FAQs About Common Law Marriage New York

Does New York have common law marriage?

couple cutting wedding cake

No, New York does not recognize common law marriage for couples living within the state.

If an unmarried couple established a valid common law marriage in a state that recognizes common law marriage and then moved to NY, then New York law would recognize that marriage.

But for couples living within the state, common law marriage is not legal in New York, regardless of how long a couple has cohabitated.

Does New York recognize common law marriages from other states?

Yes, NY acknowledges a couple as common law married if common law marriage was legally recognized in the state from which they moved and they met the legal requirements of that state.

In fact, all states are required to recognize common law marriages from states where such legal relationships are valid due to the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

As noted above, though, a couple must have established their valid common law marriage before moving to New York state.

What rights do domestic partners have in New York state?

A domestic partnership is another form of legal relationship separate from traditional marriage or common law marriage. Domestic partnerships are recognized in New York state, and while they do not bestow all the rights of marriage, they do grant certain benefits. (New York City has a domestic partnership register).

For instance, domestic partners have certain benefits and rights relating to each other, such as the right to hospital visits and to make medical decisions for their partners.

The relevance of domestic partnerships has decreased since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, though.

The Bottom Line

So, does New York have common law marriage? No, New York does not recognize common law marriages, although the state does recognize them if the couple established a common law marriage in a state where they are legal.

Therefore, the best way to get the rights of a married couple in NY is through a legal marriage, complete with a ceremony and marriage license. Without one, unmarried couples in New York do not have any property rights or inheritance rights with respect to their partners, regardless of how long they've lived together.

For couples who want to ensure certain rights but still don't want to get married, cohabitation agreements, joint ownership of property, and wills can help clarify and establish rights and obligations with respect to the couple's property and finances, which frequently become intertwined during the course of a long-term relationship.

If you have questions about your situation, consider speaking with a New York family law attorney today.