The couple in a common law marriage has to meet certain legal requirements in their state, but contrary to popular belief, living together for seven years isn't one of them. "Hard to say where that misconception came from," Marsha Garrison, a professor and expert on family law at Brooklyn Law School, explains in an email.
Common-law marriage might sound like a relatively modern institution, but the practice actually dates back to antiquity.
"Centuries ago, marriage wasn't as closely tied to religion or legal status as it is now," Weinberger explains in an email. "In Ancient Greece and Rome, for example, it was the tradition for husbands and wives to simply declare themselves to be married in the absence of any kind of formal legal or religious ceremony."
The practice continued and grew in Medieval Europe. But the rise of the Church put more pressure upon people to go through formal unions. "Eventually, governments also stepped up, regulating marriage as a useful way to collect taxes and track populations," Weinberger says.
Even so, common-law marriage eventually took root in the U.S., as settlers spread into rural areas where clergy and churches were scarce, and there often wasn't easy access to courthouses.
But gradually, as the country became more settled and people had easier access to churches and government offices where they could obtain marriage licenses, common-law marriage started to wane, and many states abolished the practice altogether, Weinberger says.
In other places, common law marriage persisted. In the District of Columbia, the practice exists because local statutes don’t prohibit it, according to Eva Juncker, a Silver Spring, Md.-based attorney who practices in the District. Case law, starting with a 1931 decision, lays out the requirements, which are that a couple both agree to be married, and live together from that point.
Today, while specific legal details have varied from state to state, Weinberger says that there are some common requirements. A couple has to agree that they intend to be married, live together for a significant period of time — though not necessarily seven years — and present themselves to the community as a married couple. They might use the same last name, for example, or refer to one another as "my husband" or "my wife," Weinberger explains.