Common-Law Marriage Responsibilities for Children From a Previous Marriage
By Robin Elizabeth Margolis
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If you have entered a common-law marriage and have children living with you who are your spouse's biological or adopted children from a previous relationship, the children will likely be considered your legal stepchildren. You have the same obligations to them that you would have if you had formally married your spouse.
A common-law marriage exists when a man and a woman seek the benefits of marriage but do not want a formal wedding ceremony. To contract a valid common-law marriage, they must reside in a state that allows common-law marriages, be single adults, live together continuously, tell other people and government agencies they view themselves as married, and mutually consider themselves to be married. Common-law couples who break up must go through the same court divorce process as formally married couples.
Common Law Marriage States
Only nine states -- Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah -- and the District of Columbia currently permit couples to enter into common-law marriages. Since 1990, five other states -- Ohio, Idaho, Georgia, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania -- stopped allowing common-law marriages. All 50 states recognize common-law marriages created in states that permit such arrangements, even if the couple subsequently moves to a state where such marriages are not allowed.
Valid common-law marriages are treated by the courts and state and federal government agencies in the same manner as formal marriages. Federal government forms often include space for information about common-law spouses and stepchildren. Court cases and federal agency administrative lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the spouses and stepchildren from common-law marriage families.
State laws originally required only biological or adoptive parents of a child to financially support a child. In the modern era, state laws are gradually changing to require stepparents to help support stepchildren. Both of your stepchildren's biological or adoptive parents are still required to contribute financially to the stepchildren's support, even if you are helping support your stepchildren. You are not required to continue helping support your stepchildren if you and your common-law spouse divorce.
There are legal limits on your relationship with your stepchildren. You are not allowed to make medical or legal decisions for them, such as what hospital or school your stepchildren will go to. Those decisions are made by your spouse and your stepchildren's other biological or adoptive parent.
Custody and Inheritance
If your spouse becomes disabled or dies, your stepchildren's other biological or adoptive parent will have a stronger right to your stepchildren's custody than you do, even if your stepchildren have always lived with you. If you die while still married to your spouse, your stepchildren will not inherit anything from your estate unless you specifically mention them in your will or convey property to them through a living trust or other arrangements.
- SupportGuidelines.com: The Duty of Stepparents to Support Their Stepchildren
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Dependency
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management: Insurance Programs -- FEHB Handbook
- The Harris Law Firm P.C.: Common Law Marriage – A History And Factors You Should Know
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Common Law Marriage
- Total Divorce: Stepparents' Child Custody Rights
- National Stepfamily Resource Center: Do I Have an Obligation to Support My Stepchildren?
- Open Jurist: Smith-Wilkins v. Secretary of Health and Human Services (1989)
- U.S. Department of the Navy: Marine Corps -- Dependency Determination
- Comptroller General of the United States: Matter of Steven P. Atkinson (1995)
- FreeAdvice.com: Rights of a Stepparent in Making Legal Decisions for Stepchild
- Lawyers.com: Stepchildren and Your Will
Robin Elizabeth Margolis is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She has been writing about health care, science, nutrition, fitness and law since 1988, and served as the editor of a health law newsletter. Margolis holds a bachelor of arts degree in biology, a master's degree in counseling and a paralegal certificate.