A common misconception for Californians is that common law marriages are valid. Living together and holding yourselves out to be husband and wife, even for 50 years, is not enough to create a marriage in California. This means no matter how long you’ve lived together neither party is entitled to spousal support or property inheritance. What’s his is his and what’s hers is hers. Unless you have been lawfully wed, you’re not married.
One “sort of” exception to this rule is common law marriage in another state. There are 16 states that still allow common law marriage. California recognizes the validity of common law marriages if they are valid under the law of the jurisdiction where it was contracted. This means if you have a common law marriage in another state and you move to California, then you have a legally recognized marriage in California as well.
Another “sort of” exception to this rule is contracting to receive some type of support or property. The general rule is that express or implied contracts between unmarried cohabitors are enforceable as long as they do not rely upon “meretricious” sexual services as consideration for the contract. “Meretricious” is a fancy term for “prostitution”.
In the case Marvin v. Marvin, Michelle Marvin had an oral agreement with Lee Marvin in which parties would hold themselves out as husband and wife and Michelle would give up her lucrative career as a singer to be a homemaker and devote her time to Lee. In return, Lee would support her and share any financial advantage he gained. They cohabited from 1964 until 1970. During the period of cohabitation, they gained property in excess of $1 million, in Lee’s name. Marvin v. Marvin, (1976) 18 Cal.3d 660.
The court ruled that Michelle was indeed entitled to half of the property. The court based its ruling on their opinion that “adults who voluntarily live together and engage in sexual relations are nonetheless as competent as any other persons to contract to respect their earnings and property rights.” Id. at 674.