Massachusetts does not recognize the doctrine of “common law” marriage. It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve lived together, it could be 7 years or 70 years, you cannot have a marriage under common law in Massachusetts. This is true for both heterosexual couples and same sex couples.
Only a limited number of states in the United States recognize common law marriage – nearby Rhode Island happens to be one of them. Generally, though, in those states that do recognize common law marriage it isn’t the number of years living together that matters, it’s usually the “intent” of the couple. They must intend to be considered to be married, they must act like they are married in the community, and they must live together (the length of time usually doesn’t matter).
If you do live in a state that recognizes common law marriage and you break up, then the laws of divorce in that state will control the breakup. In a state like Massachusetts that doesn’t recognize common law marriage, when a couple breaks up the divorce laws DON’T apply.
So when a cohabiting couple breaks up in Massachusetts are there no rules that govern the division of the couple’s affairs? Massachusetts courts have adopted the view that unmarried cohabitants may lawfully contract concerning property, financial, and other matters that affect their relationship. Couples can execute “cohabitation agreements” which are written contracts that will outline how matters are handled if the couple breaks up or if a partner dies.
Since most cohabitants don’t write cohabitation agreements, but probably have more oral promises about what to do if they split up, courts have to address the division of the couple’s affairs in different ways. Generally, courts will enforce oral agreements between cohabitants, but the problem that most couples face is how to prove the terms of any oral contract.
More and more people are living together in committed relationships, but there are complex issues that affect their rights and responsibilities. Look for my soon-to-be-released book on cohabiting in Massachusetts, but if you would like to consult with an attorney about your living-together arrangements contact Andrew Garcia at Phillips Garcia Law.