Common Law Marriage Rhode Island: Everything You Need To Know

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By Divorce & Finance

Common law marriage rhode island happy common law marriage spousesCommon law marriage Rhode Island spouses may be recognized as husband and wife even without a marriage license or wedding ceremony. Yet, there are various factors that should be met for this type of marriage to be valid.

In this article, we’ll look at the establishment of common law marriage in Rhode Island. We’ll also highlight the rights and obligations of the parties in this type of marriage.

Does Rhode Island Recognize Common Law Marriage?

Rhode Island is among the ten jurisdictions that still recognize common law marriages. In this state, your long-term relationship with your partner can be considered common law marriage if it meets some conditions. If your relationship does meet said requirements, you don’t have to hold a wedding ceremony or apply for a marriage license.

The state recognizes common law marriage by case law rather than statutes. This means that there are no laws that prohibit common law marriage and that it can be recognized in some cases. The popularity of common law marriage grew in the 1800s, when ministers could hardly access the remote areas of the country. Since then, the Rhode Island legislature hasn’t abolished common law marriage.

Establishing a Common Law Marriage in Rhode Island

Common law marriage is largely a gray area in the state. As such, there is no single factor that proves a common law marriage. A couple that seeks to be recognized as being common law married has the burden of showing that they have met various requirements as required by the state.

Cohabiting partners have to meet the following Rhode Island common law marriage requirements to validate their marriage:

  • Present intent to get married.
  •  Cohabit for a substantial amount of time.
  • Hold themselves out to family and friends as married spouses. Such things as sharing the last name, exchanging and wearing wedding rings and sharing accounts could help with this.

Rhode Island Marriage Laws

The conventional way of getting married in Rhode Island is by applying for a marriage license. Both parties must sign the license in the presence of a town or city clerk or their assistants. By doing this, they attest to the truth of the information contained in the license. Besides applying for and signing the marriage license, other general marriage requirements in Rhode Island include:

  • Presenting proof of identification and birth certificates. Generally, both spouses must be at least 18 years of age.
  • Presenting a copy of the final divorce decree or dissolution if any partner was previously married or was in a civil union or registered domestic partnership. This could also be a copy of the death certificate if a previous spouse or partner passed away.
  • Completion of a Minor’s Permit to Marry by parents or guardian if parties are below 18 years or under legal guardianship.
  • Court permission if either applicant is below 16 years of age.

What parties may be witnesses at the ceremony where partners are getting married in Rhode Island? Normally, an officiant solemnizes the marriage in the presence of at least two witnesses who have attained the age of majority (18 years). In the state, various officials can join parties in marriage, including an ordained clergy, judicial officer, judge, or a justice of the peace.

Benefits of Common Law Marriage

Partners who choose to forgo the legalities of ceremonial marriage may still enjoy some benefits by entering into a common law marriage. By getting married through common law in Rhode Island, the state considers you legally married even without a marriage license. But do common law spouses enjoy the same benefits of marriage as other spouses?

Common law couples in Rhode Island certainly enjoy some benefits as married couples, most of these being financial. Some of these benefits include:

  • Eligibility to receive Social Security benefits, provided couples can prove the number of years they’ve cohabited in the state.
  • Qualification for employer benefits through the spouse, including health insurance.
  • Claiming deductions for mortgage interest in case they co-own the house and have children.
  • Federal estate and gift tax marital exemption.
  • Using a medical power of attorney, which gives the common law spouses the power to make medical decisions in case of the other’s incapability.

Inheritance and Property Division in Common Law Marriage

A common law spouse can inherit their spouse’s property in the presence of a valid will that names them as the heir. In the absence of a will, their children and other family members may assume the inheritance rights. As such, the surviving common law spouse may be left with nothing.

Upon dissolution of marriage, common law spouses in Rhode Island divide marital property via equitable distribution. Marital property refers to assets acquired by spouses during the marriage or brought into the marriage. Where spouses agree to share accounts or commingle funds, these could also be considered marital property.

A court will divide property in a way it deems fair and equitable for each common law spouse. In doing this, it takes into consideration various factors including:

  • The number of years the spouses have lived together
  • The contribution of each spouse to the marital property
  • Each spouse’s earning capacity and sources of income
  • Each spouse’s economic circumstances upon property division
  • The age and health of each spouse
  • The standard of living established during the course of the relationship
  • The need for education or training of either party
  • The responsibilities of each spouse after divorce, including custody and care of the children
  • The value of the marital property
  • The contribution of one spouse to the other’s education or earning capacity
  • Economic misconduct: a court may award a lower percentage of the marital property to a spouse who fraudulently or wastefully spent marital assets.
  • The tax consequences of property division on each spouse

Upon divorce, some property is exempt from division. Such include:

  • Gifts that were given separately
  • Property that was inherited and kept separately
  • Property excluded due to a prenuptial agreement
  • Property that was separately acquired before the relationship

 Alimony in Common Law Marriage

In Rhode Island, common law spouses and traditionally married spouses are held to the same standards. If your relationship ends, you can’t just walk away only because you don’t have a marriage license. The only way to legally part ways is through a divorce. During this process, you will be subject to Rhode Island divorce laws, including those governing alimony.

If you can demonstrate your need for spousal support and the ability of your soon-to-be-ex to pay, the court will decide the type and duration of alimony. Some standard considerations that a judge will make when calculating alimony include:

  • The length of the relationship
  • Each spouse’s age, health, income, occupation, vocational skills, and employability
  • The ability of the paying spouse to support the other spouse while maintaining financial independence
  •  The conduct of the spouses during the relationship
  • Whether the receiving spouse is the custodial parent of a child whose age, circumstances or condition makes it difficult to secure a job outside of the home, or find flexible employment
  • Each spouse’s liabilities and needs
  • The time a spouse spent outside of employment while fulfilling marital responsibilities
  • The extent to which a spouse’s education, experience, or skills are outmoded and earning capacity diminished due to their commitment to marital responsibilities
  • The time and resources needed for the receiving spouse to get the education or vocational training necessary to develop skills and secure a job
  •  The standard of living during the relationship
  • The probability of the receiving spouse completing education or vocational training and becoming self-sufficient, given their age and skills
  • Any other factor that the court deems just and proper

Common law marriage rhode island happy coupleWhen getting a divorce, you may have concerns about how you will cope financially during the process. In that case, you can request temporary alimony from your spouse through a family court. The court will assess your case and decide whether alimony is fitting. If it is, you’ll continue to receive temporary alimony until the judge finalizes the divorce.

If you need spousal support after divorce, the judge may award either short-term (rehabilitative) or permanent alimony. In Rhode Island, courts will mostly award rehabilitative support to spouses who need alimony after divorce. Alimony is considered a rehabilitative tool meant to provide temporary support until the receiving spouse is self-sufficient.

Child Custody and Support in Common Law Marriage

One factor that could help validate a common law marriage in Rhode Island is having children and bringing them up together. When common law spouses divorce, a judge will issue an order designating legal and physical custody. Yet, the spouses can reach custody agreements through mediation or on their own.

A judge reviews any custody agreement to make sure it serves the best interests of a child. Common law spouses who can’t agree on child custody matters will have to go to court for a hearing or trial. After that, the judge will determine child custody.

A judge will review the following factors when deciding child custody:

  • Each spouse’s desire for custody
  • The child’s preference (if they are of a sufficient age or maturity level)
  • The relationship of the child with each parent, siblings, and extended family members
  • The physical and mental health of each parent
  • The moral fitness of each spouse
  • Either spouse’s history of abuse or domestic violence
  • Each spouse’s ability to provide a stable environment for the child
  • The willingness of each spouse to encourage a relationship between the child and the other spouse.

Child Support After Divorcing From Common Law Marriage

Like child custody, child support is another issue that comes up during a divorce. In Rhode Island, common law spouses who have children together and wish to divorce have to address child support matters. In most cases, the noncustodial parent — the one who spends less than half the time with a child — pays for child support.

The amount of child support due is determined by the child’s needs and the parent’s financial ability. Typically, the state has a set of guidelines to establish a minimum support amount. Additionally, parents must also cover the child’s medical expenses and health insurance.

Calculation of child custody mainly depends on the monthly gross income of both spouses. However, The Rhode Island Department of Social Services issues a child support Guideline Worksheet for estimating a fair share of child support.

Prenuptial Agreements in Rhode Island Common Law Marriage

Prenup — short for prenuptial agreement — is a written contract entered into by two people before they are married. In common law marriage, prenups are equivalent to cohabitation agreements. These agreements could also be postnuptial agreements if they were made during the common law marriage after it was validated. They typically list the assets and debts of each spouse and specify the property rights of each person after marriage.

While Rhode Island recognizes common law marriage, most people living as husband and wife find it sensible to plan ahead to avoid future conflicts. Some of the aspects a prenup (or “postnup”) can help address in common law marriage include:

  • Property distribution upon breakup or death of a spouse
  • Financial support during and after marriage
  • The division of the primary residence following a breakup
  • Determination of responsibility for healthcare insurance
  • Creation of healthcare power of attorney in case of incapacity

While prenups (or cohabitation agreements) are vital documents for common law spouses in Rhode Island, there are issues that a prenup can’t affect. These include spousal duties during marriage and child custody, parenting time, and matters of child support.

Maintaining a Relationship Without Getting Married

Although Rhode Island recognizes common law marriage, partners in a romantic relationship may wish to remain unmarried. Such couples may request the state to recognize them as a family for certain purposes. One way to recognize such relationships is by entering into a domestic partnership.

– Domestic Partnerships in Rhode Island

Couples who are in domestic partnerships may enjoy benefits such as coverage for their partner and children under the employee’s health plan. In Rhode Island, those in domestic partnerships may also be accorded family and medical leave to take care of a sick partner.

Domestic partnerships also qualify surviving domestic partners for pension benefits managed through Rhode Island’s Employee Retirement System. For pension benefits to accrue, the cohabiting parties must have lived together for at least one year and prove that they were “financially interdependent.”

– Civil Unions in Rhode Island

Formerly, civil unions in the state were a way of recognizing same-sex marriages. Today, the state recognizes a civil union as a valid marriage. Same-sex couples who were formerly in civil unions can now enjoy the rights, protections, benefits, and responsibilities accorded to traditionally married couples. To enter into a civil union, partners had to fulfill the Rhode Island marriage laws.

As of August 1, 2013, same-sex marriage became legal in Rhode Island. With that, the state no longer recognizes civil unions.

Common Law Marriage Misconceptions in Rhode Island

Here are some of the common misconceptions about common law marriage in Rhode Island:

– Cohabitation

Often, people think that cohabiting with your partner will automatically qualify you as common law spouses. Couples that wish to be recognized as husband and wife under common law have to prove that they meet the state requirements for common law marriage.

– Inheritance of the Spouse’s Property

Also, common law spouses don’t have express inheritance rights. Being in a common law marriage doesn’t automatically make you the heir of your partner’s estate upon death. Common law spouses who intend that their partners inherit their property once they pass on must express it in a will.

– 50/50 Property Division

Contrary to common belief, property acquired by common law spouses will not always be split in half in the event of separation. Rhode Island isn’t a community property state, so property division follows the equitable division law. That means that a court will divide property in a way it deems fair to both partners.

– Child Adoption

Another misconception is that you have to adopt a child you’ve had together with your common law spouse. Children from a common law marriage have similar rights as those from a traditional marriage. Also, common law parents have similar obligations as any other parent. It follows that common law spouses don’t have to adopt children whom they already acknowledge as their own.

– “Common Law Divorce”

If common law spouses wish to end their relationship, they can’t just walk away and consider themselves divorced. As such, “common law divorce” doesn’t exist. The only way to legally terminate a common law marriage is by getting a legal divorce.

Future of Common Law Marriage in Rhode Island

Rhode Island is among a handful of jurisdictions that still recognize common law marriage. Yet, informal marriages remain a gray area as there’s no clearer proof of marriage as the issuance of a marriage license. Through recent decisions, it is clear that Rhode Island courts don’t like the practice and would rather have it abolished.

In a 2018 case (Luis vs Gaugler), a court granted the petitioner her right to a legal divorce. In its evaluation, the court determined that the two were in a common law marriage. However, the respondent appealed the lower court’s decision, which the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed. Besides overturning the decision, the Court asked the Rhode Island Legislature to revoke the practice.

Though common law marriage remains legal in the state, its future is certainly in doubt. An appeal could see a court’s decision to validate a common law marriage reversed by a higher court. Further, it is possible that the Rhode Island Legislature could formally scrap common law marriage.


Common law marriage rhode islandIn this comprehensive article, we’ve discussed in detail the various aspects of common law marriage in Rhode Island. The following points encapsulate the discussion:

  • Rhode Island recognizes common law marriage as a legal form of marriage.
  • Common law spouses have the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities as traditionally married couples.
  •  Couples must follow the legal divorce process if they wish to end their common law marriage.
  • The courts’ dislike of the practice largely puts the future of common law marriage in doubt.

While common law marriage remains valid in Rhode Island, the burden is on the partners to validate their informal marriage. By proving that a common law marriage exists, spouses enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as couples in a traditional marriage.

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