What is Common Law Marriage in SC, and How Does it Affect Your Legal Rights?

For generations, South Carolina recognized common law marriage, allowing couples to gain the legal status of being married without obtaining a marriage license or having a ceremony. However, in July 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court prospectively abolished common law marriage with the ruling of Stone v. Thompson.

While no new common-law marriages can be entered into after that date, the ruling does not invalidate South Carolina common-law marriages that existed prior to the court decision. So, what does this mean for couples who may have already been in this type of marriage relationship?

Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes a common law marriage in South Carolina and how it impacts legal rights and responsibilities even today.

Is Common-Law Marriage Recognized in SC?

A common law marriage refers to a relationship where a couple lives together and holds themselves out to the public as being married, but without ever officially getting married through a license or ceremony.

South Carolina had recognized this form of common law marriage for decades but issued a landmark ruling in July of 2019 that prospectively abolished it. This means that couples can no longer enter into a new common law marriage in South Carolina after that date.

However, the court’s decision was not retroactive. So, if a couple had already established a common law marriage in South Carolina before July 2019, it is still considered legal. The key is proving the marriage existed before the court abolished common law marriages going forward.

Requirements for a Valid Common Law Marriage in SC

For a common law marriage to be valid in South Carolina prior to July 2019, certain requirements had to be met:

  • Both parties legally eligible to marry – Neither could be married to someone else or closely related. Both had to meet minimum age requirements.
  • Shared residence/cohabitation – The couple must have lived together for a significant period of time.
  • Mutual agreement and intent to be married – Simply living together is not enough. The couple must have mutually agreed to be married.
  • Publicly presenting themselves as married – Holding themselves out to society as married by using the same last name, filing joint tax returns, etc.

Common-Law Marriage Misconceptions

A common misconception is that a couple merely living together for a certain number of years automatically establishes a common-law marriage. In reality, cohabitation by itself does not create a marriage. The key elements are proving intent and reputation.

Legal Rights and Responsibilities

If a common law marriage is properly established in South Carolina, the legal rights and responsibilities are identical to those of a traditionally married couple. For example:

  • Child custody, support, and visitation apply as if legally married
  • Assets and debts are marital property to be divided equitably upon separation
  • Inheritance and estate rights as a legal spouse
  • Alimony may be owed if there is a divorce
  • A legal divorce is still required to end the marriage

Bigamy Risks and Probate Challenges

If no divorce is obtained, problems can arise if one spouse enters another marriage. Also, the surviving spouse may have to go through extra steps to prove the marriage existed if the other spouse dies without a will.

How to Prove a Common-Law Marriage Existed

The burden of proof rests on the party claiming a valid common-law marriage existed in South Carolina prior to July 2019. Here are some of the key evidence factors:

  • Joint tax returns, shared last name, joint bank accounts – These types of documentation can help demonstrate shared financial ties and intent to be married.
  • Testimony from family/friends – Accounts from people close to the couple confirming they held themselves out as married can prove their reputation as a married couple.
  • Photos, cards, social media – Items like wedding rings and references to a spouse may provide additional evidence that the couple considered themselves married.
  • “Clear and convincing” standard – The courts will look for persuasive evidence that adds up to more than just a close call.

Evidentiary Challenges

Proving a common law marriage often comes down to one spouse’s word against the other’s, so testimony alone may not be sufficient. Having additional documentation is key.

Changes After July 2019 Ruling

The Stone v. Thompson ruling prevents any new common law marriages from being established in South Carolina after July 2019. However, it does not invalidate existing common-law marriages entered into before that date.

This means spouses in those marriages still have all the legal rights and responsibilities as if they had a licensed marriage. The ruling simply closed the door on new common-law marriages going forward.

Potential Disputes and Need for Clarity

For couples who were in the process of establishing a common law marriage right around July 2019, there may be disputes over exactly when the marriage began. These “edge cases” will likely require legal guidance to determine if the marriage meets the pre-2019 validity requirements.

Contact Steele Family Law for Assistance

While common law marriage is no longer an option in South Carolina going forward, it remains a legally valid form of marriage for couples who entered into it prior to July 2019.

Taking steps to formally document the marriage is advisable, and consulting a family law attorney is highly recommended for guidance on proving the marriage or understanding its legal rights and responsibilities.

If you have questions about the validity or legal status of your common-law marriage in South Carolina, the experienced team at Steele Family Law can help clarify. Visit their team online at https://steelefamilylawsc.com/ today to schedule a consultation.

 

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