Many people consider common law marriage to be common sense and common knowledge. The English tradition of assigning rights to partners who have lived in the same place for seven years or more has made its way into the laws of a few states. These privileges, however, can cut both ways when they are recognized.

An unusual ruling on common law marriage had to be issued by a Rhode Island judge when she presided over the separation of a couple that had lived together for more than 20 years but never took a vow of marriage. The male partner argued that they had fewer commitments to each other than a marriage suggests.

Rhode Island is one of the few states giving a court power to recognize a common law marriage. Many other jurisdictions would not even rule on the matter. And it took 18 months of testimony and evidentiary hearings to satisfy the judge that the marriage existed, giving the female partner rights to 50 percent of their joint possessions and assets.

“It was pretty significant for my client,” said the lawyer representing the female partner. “It reaffirms the existence of common law marriage in Rhode Island.” This was the latest in a string of rulings that have recognized common law marriages in the Ocean State since 1884.

Married couples, common law or avowed, may need help dividing property from a marriage during divorce. One of the best allies people can have during this difficult time is a lawyer to represent each spouse’s interests and fairly divide assets and liabilities according to Rhode Island law.