Welcome to the Marriage department of Divorce and FamilyLawService Center. Marriage may alter many aspects of life, financially as well as legally. Here we will discuss the meaning of marriage, common law marriage and domestic partnerships. We will also touch on prenuptial agreements and financial best practices in marriage.

What is the legal definition of marriage?

The U.S. Congress defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife”. This definition binds man and wife to full spousal rights over inheritance, medical decisions, and the couples child(ren). Getting married entails obtaining a marriage license, participating in an officiated ceremony with witnesses, and obtaining a marriage certificate. The 50 states have differing requirements for entering into marriage that encompass the age of the persons, the consent of the persons (if a minor, one or both parents must consent), and the capacity of the persons to understand all that marriage encompasses. A marriage ends when one spouse dies, an annulment, or a divorce decree is final.

Common Law Marriage

Long ago, a man and a woman were considered married if they lived together, had sexual intercourse, and presented themselves to the community as husband and wife. It was called common law marriage and the license, ceremony, and certificate were not necessary.

These days, most states do not accept common law marriage as a valid marriage. In fact, there are only about 9 states that recognize it. If a couple lives in one of those states that recognize common law marriage and the couple has the capacity for marriage, lives together, presents themselves to their community as husband and wife, and regard themselves as married; then, the court can validate the marriage as legal with the same rights as a married couple who went through a ceremony. A legal common law marriage ends through a formal divorce proceeding.

Domestic Partnership

Some states recognize domestic partnerships as a form of relationship that gives limited state’s rights to couples (of any gender combination) who wish to remain unmarried or cannot marry due to prohibitions in the law. The benefits that come with domestic partnerships vary widely among states, but may include: employee family benefits, sick and family leave, parental rights, life insurance, death benefits, and tax benefits. A domestic partnership dissolution is similar to a divorce.

Prenuptial Agreements

Every state allows prenuptial agreements (prenups). Today, prenuptial agreements have benefits to a far reaching group of people. A prenuptial agreement can deviate from the state laws which govern marriage and post marriage agreements. It should be written in such a way that is clear and justifiable to the courts. Divorce and remarriage are more accepted in our society and discussing some possible future scenarios before marriage can ease those transitions later. In addition to safeguarding assets and protection from the spouse’s debt, other benefits of a prenup could be: how property passes on death (possibly to children from a previous marriage rather than a current spouse) and clarify financial responsibilities and rights during the marriage. The process of hashing out a prenuptial agreement can help avoid long and costly disputes in the event of divorce proceedings.

Financial Best Practices in Marriage

More than any other reason, money is the reason marriages end in divorce. Having a conversation with your new life partner in regards to finances might not seem like the most romantic evening, but it is time well spent in preserving a relationship that is meaningful. People have different priorities on how money should be spent. Clarify the expectations on spending early in the marriage. Goals on major life expenses (house, kids’ college) set early are more likely to come to fruition easily. Plan out the future in broad strokes leaving room for the unexpected. Making a budget including everyday expenses as well as your larger life goals can help a couple stay financially on track. Compromise is an essential skill in marriage. Stay true to yourself, but be honest with the reality of your own expectations.