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When I was a little girl growing up in Michigan, I had heard that if you lived with someone for seven years or more, you were considered legally married.  I don’t remember who told me that, and I never knew if it was true. But after I grew up and began work on our family tree, I decided to investigate, and here is what I found.

In ancient Greek and Roman civilization, marriages were private. They were agreements between individuals and families. Community recognition of a marriage was what qualified it as a marriage. In medieval Europe, marriage came under the jurisdiction of canon law, which recognized as a valid marriage one where the parties stated that they took one another as wife and husband, even in absence of any witnesses. By the 1500s, The Roman Catholic Church introduced the specific requirements that a marriage would only be valid if witnessed by the pastor or the local bishop of the diocese.

As time went on, more rules were added throughout different areas of Europe. The Marriage Act of 1753 for England and Wales did not apply to overseas colonies of the time, so common-law marriages were recognized in the American colonies and Canada. As of this writing, common-law marriages are still recognized in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, the District of Columbia, and under military law.

So what is common-law marriage?  If you hold yourself to be married by telling the community you are married, call each other husband and wife, and use the same last name such as on filing joint income tax returns, then you can have a common-law marriage provided your state recognizes such marriages.

Common-law marriage makes you a legally married couple in every way, even though you never obtained a marriage license. If you choose to end your relationship, you must get a divorce, even though you never had a wedding.

Legally, common-law married couples must play by all the same rules as “regular” married couples. If you live in one of the common-law states and don’t want your relationship to become a common-law marriage, you must be clear that it is your intention not to marry. It is even recommend that an agreement in writing, that both partners sign and date, be drawn up stating that  the couple has been and plans to continue living together as two free, independent beings and that neither has ever intended to enter into any form of marriage, common-law or otherwise.

Prior to 2005, Pennsylvania recognized common-law marriages. Angelo and Josephine’s marriage had not been legal due to the fact that Minnie had not yet given Angelo a divorce. I had always wondered if they later had another ceremony to make it legal.  But since I learned about common-law marriage, I think it’s likely they didn’t bother because by the time the divorce was final in 1948, Angelo and Jo would have only been about a year away from qualifying for the common-law marriage.

Even their move to Michigan in 1950 would not have been a problem, even though Michigan does not recognize common-law marriage.  The reason for this is because if your marriage was recognized under common-law, and you move to a state that does not recognize common-law, you are still considered married since all states recognize marriages that occurred in other states.

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