With an apparent trend lower in the divorce rate across the country and likely in Alabama as well, many couples might feel that cohabitation is a viable alternative to marriage. As a Birmingham family law and divorce attorney, I know the pitfalls of this kind of approach to a long-term relationship. When it comes to separation and divorce, one or both of the parties in a live-in relationship may think they are avoiding the complications associated with a traditional marriage, but you might be surprised to know that this may not be the case here in Alabama.

Certainly, it seems that on the surface cohabitation free one party from any legal responsibility to the other in cases where the relationship doesn’t work out and the two people part ways. However, Alabama is one of the few states that still recognizes common law marriage, which is defined roughly as a union between two people not formalized in the customary manner as prescribed by law but created by an agreement to marry followed by cohabitation.

Furthermore, cohabitating couples in Alabama may be shocked to learn that they could already be married in the eyes of the law, and with that, be affected by the same laws that pertain to other, legally married couples in terms of divorce, spousal and child support, division of property and other aspects of a divorce. Even if divorce is not the issue, there are other aspects that may be of particular importance to one or the other party, such as property ownership, rights of survivorship, spousal benefits, and other marital amenities.

Although common law marriage is prohibited in most parts of the United States, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires all states that prohibit it to nonetheless recognize a common law marriage created in a jurisdiction that allows it, such as Alabama. In fact, the laws in all states require a common-law spouse to obtain a divorce before remarrying.

With so much at stake, an Alabama lawyer trained in divorce and family law should be sought in matters such as this, because the tests for common law marriage in Alabama can be vague at best. Should a court decide that the couple qualifies as being in a common law marriage, all the legal processes that apply to a legal marriage would apply.

Because of this, if someone in a current cohabitation arrangement feels that he or she may want to leave the relationship now or in the future, it would be wise to enlist the help of a qualified legal professional to sort out the legal standing of that particular relationship.