You might have heard the term “common law marriage,” referring to a relationship between two adults who have cohabited for a specific length of time which was long enough for the couple to be considered married in the eyes of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court held as early as 1877 that a such a marriage is not invalid as long as it is recognized by the individual state in which the couple resides. [1]  Does that mean a divorce lawyer might be necessary to end such a relationship when the parties reside in Massachusetts? It all depends on the facts of their case.

Massachusetts, however, has long held that a common law marriage cannot ripen into a legal marriage between two people. Back in the 1892 case of Peck v. Peck, the Supreme Judicial Court considered a petition for divorce between a couple who claimed to have a marriage contract signed in Oregon, which the couple claimed “recognizes an agreement to live together, ‘so long as mutual affection shall exist,’ as a marriage contract.” The Court disagreed and held that because there was no evidence that any of the states in which the parties lived actually recognized them as married, there was no reason for the Massachusetts courts to do so either. [2]

In a more recent case, the Supreme Judicial Court again restated that marriage is not recognized in Massachusetts unless the formalized requirements are met. “Cohabitation in Massachusetts does not create the relationship of husband and wife in the absence of a formal solemnization of marriage. We have not permitted the incidents of the marital relationship to attach to an arrangement of cohabitation without marriage.”[3]

It is important to note, however, that the Massachusetts courts will give full faith and credit to cohabiting relationships which were deemed to be marriages in states where common law marriage has legal recognition. In other words, if a couple is considered to be in a legally binding marriage in Pennsylvania, and later seeks a divorce in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts court will recognize the marriage as valid. [4]  That’s usually surprising for at least one of the spouses and an interesting issue for the divorce lawyers.

In another line of cases, the Massachusetts courts have reviewed whether a person who is cohabiting with the plaintiff of a personal injury claim may be entitled to damages which affect the rights of the purported “common law spouse.” In particular, the issue of loss of consortium comes up, which deals with a spouse’s ability to collect damages from a defendant who injures the plaintiff spouse and causes the other spouse to lose affection, time, and enjoyment as a result. In regards to cohabiting partners, the Massachusetts courts have held that loss of consortium cannot be claimed unless the plaintiff and the claimant are legally married. [5]

If you have any questions about marriage and divorce in Massachusetts, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form here, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

[1] Meister v. Moore, 96 U.S. 76 (1877).

[2] Peck v. Peck, 155 Mass. 479

[3] Collins v. Guggenheim, 417 Mass. 615, at 617-618 (1994).

[4] See Craddock’s Case, 310 Mass. 116 (1941).

[5] See, for example, Feliciano v. Rosemar Silver Co., 401 Mass. 141 (1987).