What is the Difference Between Civil Unions & Common Law Marriages?

What is the Difference Between Civil Unions & Common Law Marriages?

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Colorado considers many forms of union between two people who join their lives or create a family. Traditional marriage is still the most common way for two people to unite, but most states now also recognize other options, including civil unions and common-law marriages in Colorado. It’s important to understand the differences between these two alternatives to a traditional marriage if you and your loved one are weighing your legal options for uniting.

What is the Difference Between Civil Unions & Common Law Marriages?

What is a Common Law Marriage in Colorado?

The term “Common Law Marriage” is often misused and misunderstood in the United States. It’s sometimes used simply to describe any cohabitating couple or understood to refer to couples who’ve lived together for more than 7 years. In actuality, common law marriages began historically as a stop-gap measure for couples to live as man and wife in isolated rural areas where they had to wait many months for a visit from clergy to preside over a ceremony.

In Colorado, common law marriage refers to any couple who cohabitate with a simple agreement that they are married and an announcement as such to family and friends. They need not have obtained a marriage license or had a legal or religious ceremony with an officiant in order to be considered common-law spouses. The only exceptions to this rule are the following:

  • Couples under age 18 cannot become common law spouses
  • They cannot be already married to others
  • They cannot be engaged to marry someone else
  • They cannot be common-law spouses if one or both parties already have a common-law marriage with another

When a couple becomes common-law spouses they enjoy similar legal rights, obligations, and protections as spouses married with a marriage license and officiant including:

  • The right to hospital visitation
  • The right to survivor benefits
  • The right to be considered married even when traveling or moving to other states
  • The obligation to report the common law marriage status to the court to terminate any alimony from a previous marriage

While in most cases, a spouse can also provide healthcare coverage for a common-law spouse, some health insurance providers may prohibit this and others may require a signed statement validating the common-law marriage status.

In some cases, courts use other means to prove a common law marriage existed between cohabitating couples by examining records such as joint bank accounts, joint tax returns, and joint property ownership.

Ending a common-law marriage requires a dissolution or divorce just as a traditional marriage. If a common-law spouse does not obtain a legal divorce they could face legal problems later if they try to remarry.

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What is a Civil Union in Colorado and How Does it Differ From Common Law Marriage?

A civil union is a legalized relationship between loved ones that’s very similar to a marriage. While not all states currently offer this option for union, Colorado recognizes civil unions between couples with the same rights, protections, and privileges as those in a traditional marriage. Civil union was originally used most often by same-sex couples who weren’t allowed to legally marry until 2014. Now, however, a civil union remains a legal option for both same-sex and heterosexual couples seeking an alternative to traditional marriage.

Unlike a common law marriage, couples seeking a civil union must apply for a license, similar to a traditional marriage. Civil union provides couples all the same rights and protections as a marriage, only on a state level rather than a national level. The protections and rights of a civil union include:

  • Healthcare benefits
  • Inheritance rights
  • Parental rights
  • Survivor rights
  • Joint property rights
  • Spousal privilege

Civil union differs from traditional marriage in that it isn’t recognized at a federal level. Therefore, couples in a civil union may find they don’t have the same protections if they move to a state that doesn’t recognize the civil union. Federal taxes must be filed individually rather than jointly for couples in a civil union. Some federal benefits, such as social security and veteran’s benefits may not carry over to the spouse in a civil union as they would in a traditional marriage. If you have questions about family law in Colorado, speak with an experienced Denver family law attorney.