Rhode Island is one of the minority of states where common-law marriage may be recognized by a court. However, whether a couple is in a common-law marriage can be a murky legal question.

One Rhode Island couple who split after more than two decades living together is asking the state Supreme Court to rule on that question.

The decision will impact whether the woman is entitled to half of the couple’s combined assets, including her partner’s retirement accounts and profits from the sale of the East Providence home where the couple lived, which is in his name only.

The couple broke up in 2013. The woman filed for divorce. That was granted by a family court judge who ruled that the couple met the requirements for common-law marriage, including the intention and legal ability to get married and their identification to others as a married couple. However, the man claims that the two were never married. His attorney says that the judge’s ruling was incorrect.

In fact, as the Supreme Court chief justice stated as the court heard the case, “This couple cherry-picked where and when they wanted to be married.”

They reportedly used the terms “husband” and “wife” when referring to each other in front of others. The woman had an engagement ring and the man reportedly wore a wedding band. She and her son were covered under the man’s health insurance policy.

However, the couple’s finances — including their bank accounts and their taxes, in addition to the home — were largely separate. One justice noted that not listing yourself as a married person to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)when you are could place someone is legal jeopardy.

The woman’s attorney argued that the man acted as a father figure to her son and named him on his life insurance policy and retirement plan. However, she did not consistently portray to people in her son’s life that she was married. One justice asked, “How troubling is it that your client sometimes said she was married and sometimes she didn’t?”

Because common–law marriage doesn’t have the same clear-cut legal guidelines as traditional marriage, if a couple wants to ensure that they have the rights of a legally-married couple should they split up when it comes to property and other matters, they should consider having some type of legal agreement. Rhode Island family law attorneys can provide valuable guidance.

Source: Providence Journal, “R.I. Supreme Court: Justices must decide: Are they married?,” Katie Mulvaney, April 04, 2018