Colorado is one of just a few states that recognizes common-law marriages. This means that many people who are not law-savvy or are new to the state may have some incorrect assumptions about what a legal marriage requires.

Myth or reality?

Common-law spouses generally enjoy the legal and economic benefits and protections of a traditional marriage. Children of common-law spouses are not treated any differently from children from traditional marriages. And, their parents have the same rights and responsibilities as other parents.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no magical number of years that you must live with your partner before your common law marriage is valid. Another myth many believe is that a divorce is not necessary when a common-law married couple splits.

Common-law divorce and property division

Like any relationship, common-law marriages are easier to start than to end. In Colorado, there are no separate divorce laws for common-law and traditional marriages. This means that common-law spouses will need to use the same divorce process as everyone else.

The divorce may become contentious when assets purchased during the marriage, such as a shared home or a stock portfolio, must be divided. Unless there is a notarized affidavit of a common-law marriage on file at a county clerk’s office, one of the partners may try to claim that a marital relationship never existed. If this happens, the marital status will need to be proven before property division aspects of the divorce can be addressed.

Social Security survivor benefits and common-law marriages

While many benefits are the same for all types of marriage, governmental agencies may require additional steps to qualify. When one member of a common-law marriage passes away, his or her spouse may apply for survivor’s benefits. However, the surviving spouse must reside in a state where common-law marriages are legal when he or she applies. And, since there is no marriage certificate, the surviving spouse must show the Social Security Administration (SSA) proof of the common-law marriage.

Unless the couple filed paperwork proactively, the SSA will require marriage-affirming statements from two of the deceased’s blood relatives in addition to a statement from a blood relative of the survivor and the widow’s or widower’s own statement. The SSA may also require additional materials, such as bank records and rent receipts, to show proof of the relationship.

Don’t take your legal status as a common-law spouse for granted, and don’t believe everything you read. Consult a legal professional for real answers.