A “common law” marriage is a relationship recognized as a marriage by law, between two people who never actually got married. Utah is one of eight states that recognize common law marriage and only has recently. Utah had recognized common law marriages between heterosexual couples, but a December 2015 ruling out of Utah’s Second District, In the Matter of the Estate of Sarah Clow, (2015 UT) came down as a huge step for same-sex couples. Judge Ernest Jones ruled that the eight-year relationship between Nicki Bidlack and Sarah Clow, who passed away in 2014, constituted a common law marriage, enabling Bidlack to access retirement benefits and life insurance, just as any other surviving spouse would be able to.
One partner does not have to die in order to ask the court to recognize a relationship as a common law marriage. You may petition the court for a Judicial Recognition of a Relationship as Marriage for any past relationship. Some reasons to do this include access to retirement and benefits, as was the case in the Sarah Clow case above, to inherit property, and most commonly to get divorced and divide property or receive alimony.
There is no set duration that a relationship has to last in order to ask the Court to declare a common law marriage, just as there is no set duration that traditional marriage has to have lasted in order to get divorced or access retirement or other benefits. There is, however, a time limit of one year after the relationship ends to ask the Court to recognize the relationship as a common law marriage. Courts consider several different factors in determining whether or not to recognize a relationship as a marriage, which includes the duration of the relationship, whether the parties lived together, held themselves out to the community as married, owned property together, filed taxes together, and had children together. This is not an exhaustive list of conditions, and even meeting all of these does not guarantee that the Court will recognize the relationship as a marriage.
The recent ruling out of the Second District of Utah will surely open the door for many other same-sex couples to ask the Court to recognize past relationships as marriages. Especially in the situations where the couples would have married, but for laws banning same-sex marriages, Court’s are likely to find that very persuasive in later recognizing those relationships as marriages by law. This is a new and ever-developing area of law, that will undoubtedly keep changing and growing as Court’s continue to follow and interpret changing State and Federal laws regarding marriage.