Are Common Law Marriages Legal?

Are Common Law Marriages Legal?
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Last updated: June 2013

Note:The Illinois Marriage and Dissolution Act and Paternity Act changed on January 1, 2016. The most up-to-date information can be found in the following articles: Parentage (formerly Paternity), Divorce, Allocation of Parental Responsibilities (formerly Custody), Parenting Time (formerly Visitation), and Child Support.

The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.


I lived with a woman for 12 years. We were never married, but the woman I lived with called our relationship a "common law marriage." After we broke up several years ago, I married another woman in a regular ceremony, with a license. The woman I used to live with still calls herself my common law wife, and says we are still "married" because we never got divorced. She says my marriage to my current wife is not valid, and that she will inherit from me when I die. Is there any truth to what she says?


Not if you were living with her in Illinois. Common law marriages are not valid in Illinois, so you need a license to be legally married in this state. Unless you entered into a common law marriage in another state that allows them, or allowed them while you were living together, you were not married. Your current marriage is valid and your former live-in has no inheritance rights.

However, even though Illinois currently will not let you get married without a license, it will recognize common law marriages that are valid in other states. But if you did not move to Illinois with an already valid common law marriage, you did not get one here. 

If you had a common law marriage that was valid in another state, the woman you used to live with would be right: you would still be married to her. That is because a common law marriage, when it is valid, is just as legal as a licensed, ceremonial marriage. And like any "real" marriage, you would have to get divorced to end it.

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