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Does Tennessee Recognize Common Law Marriages?

Given the well-known statistics about the high rate of divorce in the United States, it should be no surprise that more and more people are choosing to forego the legal institute of marriage altogether. In 2021, the U.S. marriage rate was 14.9 marriages in the last year per 1,000 women, down from 16.3 a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Census. Marriage, however, does offer certain legal protections if the relationship does not work out. In the past, couples often claimed those same legal protections because they entered into a “common law” marriage when a relationship ended. Will that work today? To answer that question, a Murfreesboro family law attorney at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby explains how the concept of common law marriagesdivorce attorney are viewed in Tennessee.

What Is a Common Law Marriage?

When most of us envision the concept of marriage, we think in terms of applying for a license, having a judge or religious leader perform a ceremony, and then following up with a small mountain of paperwork that is required to legally sanction the marriage. There was a time, however, when simply getting to someone qualified to perform a marriage was difficult because people did not live in modern day cities. The law evolved the concept of a “common law” marriage to account for couples who held themselves out as married but who never went through the traditional legal steps required to be married. Both then and now, state law dictates whether common law marriages are recognized and, if they are, what requirements must be met to form a common law marriage.

Common Law Marriage in Tennessee

The State of Tennessee does not legally recognize common law marriages formed within its own state; however, it does recognize common law marriages formed in a state where they are legal. As of 2024, states that fully recognize common law marriages include:

  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas

Numerous other states have laws that allow for limited recognition of common law marriage, typically focusing on when the common law marriage began. For example, South Carolina recognizes common law marriages that began prior to July 24, 2019.

How Can I Protect Myself If I Do Not Want to Be Legally Married?

The decision to enter into a legal marriage is first and foremost an emotional decision; however, it also has legal implications if the relationship ends. If a legal marriage ends in divorce, for example, you automatically have a right to a “fair and just” division of marital assets in the ensuing divorce. If you lived with someone outside the legal bounds of matrimony, it becomes much more complicated and difficult to separate assets if the relationship ends. Being proactive during the relationship is the best way to protect yourself.

Just as couples contemplating marriage often enter into a prenuptial agreement, you might consider entering into a cohabitation agreement with your partner. An experienced family law attorney can discuss the details with you; however, the general concept of a cohabitation agreement is to set forth in writing what assets are owned by each party at the beginning of the relationship and any agreed upon terms regarding how assets acquired during the relationship will be divided should the relationship end. You may also discuss joint ownership options if you choose to purchase real property together to ensure that you each have a legal ownership interest in the property. Various other estate planning tools, such as beneficiary designations on financial accounts and advance directives can help make it clear that you view your partner as a spouse and want your partner to have the equivalent legal rights of a spouse. The important thing is to sit down with a family law attorney now instead of finding yourself in the middle of a complex and costly legal nightmare down the road should the relationship end.

Contact a Murfreesboro Family Law Attorney 

If you are cohabitating without a plan to marry in Tennessee and want to ensure that your legal rights are protected, consult with an experienced Murfreesboro family law attorney at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your free appointment.


Stan Bennett