Home Divorce Lawyer Does Tennessee Have Common-Law Marriage?

Does Tennessee Have Common-Law Marriage?

Does Tennessee Have Common-Law Marriage

Common-law marriage, also known as an informal or unofficial marriage, is a legal framework under which a couple is deemed married even though they did not obtain a marriage license or have their marriage solemnized. While some U.S. states still recognize common-law marriages, Tennessee is not one of them.

In this blog post, we will define common-law marriage, examine Tennessee’s stance, and discuss some key factors around this topic.

Common-Law Marriage

Common-law marriage emerged as a legal structure in the U.S. during the colonial era. At that time, access to registration offices and clergy could be limited, so couples simply agreeing to live as husband and wife was deemed a valid marriage in the eyes of the law. Over time, most states discontinued recognizing common-law marriages as marriage laws modernized.

Today, only a handful of states—Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia—still acknowledge common-law marriages formed within their borders.

The criteria to establish a common-law marriage vary by state but generally include:

  • Both parties having the legal capacity to marry
  • Publicly declaring their commitment to each other verbally or in writing as husband and wife
  • Cohabitating together continuously as husband and wife
  • Holding each other out to the community as married
  • Filing joint tax returns, obtaining shared insurance policies, etc.

Once established, common-law marriages carry the same legal rights and obligations as ceremonial marriages under state law. This includes inheritance rights, spousal support, social security benefits, etc.

Tennessee’s Stance on Common-Law Marriage

Tennessee abolished common-law marriage in 1919. The Tennessee Code Annotated states that no common-law marriages shall be entered after June 1, 1918. As such, any couple claiming a common-law marriage has to provide evidence it was established prior to this date to have it legally recognized in Tennessee today.

So definitively, Tennessee does not currently recognize common-law marriages initiated after June 1, 1918. However, the state does acknowledge common-law marriages that pre-date this cutoff if they meet the criteria needed to establish a valid common-law union under previous Tennessee law. Key criteria that had to be shown include:

  • An actual and mutual agreement between the parties to be husband and wife
  • Public representation of that agreement—living together as man and wife or holding themselves out to the community as married
  • Confirmation of the agreement by cohabitation and mutual assumption of marital duties and obligations
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If enough evidence exists to prove a pre-June 1918 common-law marriage in Tennessee, it will be seen as legally binding. But new common-law marriages cannot be initiated or established in the state today.

Implications of Tennessee’s Non-Recognition

Not recognizing common-law marriage has significant legal implications for unmarried couples living together in Tennessee:

  1. Property acquired solely by one partner remains their separate property and does not transfer to the other at death via inheritance laws.
  2. Medical decisions and end-of-life care naturally fall to blood relatives, not a non-married long-term partner, if one is incapacitated. Power of attorney documentation would need to be prepared.
  3. In the event of a separation or breakup, non-married partners have no claim to spousal support or asset division under marital property law.
  4. Health and retirement benefits tied to a job are not extended to non-married partners as they would be for legal spouses. Private insurance policies may need to be acquired.
  5. Filing joint tax returns is not an option, potentially increasing overall tax burden compared to married couples.
  6. Immigration of a non-citizen partner faces greater obstacles without the validity a marriage provides under family reunification laws.

So in general, common-law partners retain all legal rights as individuals but lack the protections and benefits extended automatically to married couples in Tennessee. Careful estate and legal planning is advised to mitigate risks.

Implications for Existing Common-Law Marriages

For the small number of couples who can prove a valid pre-1918 common-law marriage established in Tennessee, several factors apply:

  • The marriage remains legally binding and is treated equal to ceremonial marriages under Tennessee law.
  • If the couple never formalized their marriage with a license, doing so now would offer official documentation for the future but is not legally required.
  • Dissolving the marriage would require the same legal process as a ceremonial divorce, including grounds, division of assets, etc.
  • Rights to inheritance, benefits, medical decisions apply as they would for any married couple.
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So in summary, Tennessee maintains the legal standing of established common-law marriages but no new informal unions can be entered into today without a marriage license and solemnization. Proving an old common-law marriage remains a high evidentiary bar.

Citizen Action and Same-S3x Recognition

In past decades, some Tennessee residents pushed unsuccessfully for citizen initiatives or legislation to restore common-law marriage in the state.

Reasons cited included issues around property rights of unmarried partners and the changing social acceptance of non-marital cohabitation. Critics felt it promoted instability versus legally binding commitments.

Another angle arises from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Even though Tennessee does not acknowledge new common-law unions, some argue its recognition of pre-1918 cases established a limited right to an informal marriage that should extend to same-sex couples. However, no clear legal rulings have emerged on this question so far.

Overall, momentum does not appear to be building for Tennessee to make any policy changes on its stance toward common-law marriage at this point in time. But it remains a subject that intersects with evolving cultural views on marriage, property rights and LGBTQ issues. Further discussion is likely.


In summary, while some U.S. states continue to acknowledge common-law marriage initiated within their borders, Tennessee is not among them due to abolishing the practice in 1919.

The state maintains legal standing for pre-1918 common-law marriages established in Tennessee if sufficient evidence confirms they meet past criteria, but new informal unions cannot be entered into without standard licensure and solemnization.

Tennessee’s non-recognition carries significant implications, so understanding the nuances is important for both committed couples and estate planners in the state. Recognition policies may continue facing discussion as familial and social structures change over time.

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FAQs About Common-Law Marriage in Tennessee

Does living together in Tennessee for a long time establish a common-law marriage?

No, simply cohabiting for an extended period, even while presenting yourselves as a married couple to friends and community, will not establish a common-law marriage in Tennessee. The state does not recognize any common-law marriages initiated after June 1, 1918.

Can a common-law marriage established in another state be recognized in Tennessee?

It depends. Tennessee may acknowledge the validity of a common-law marriage legally formed in one of the states that still allows this practice, as long as the couple meets that state’s criteria when cohabiting there. However, Tennessee law would govern things like dissolution or inheritance cases that occur after establishing residency in the state.

Can I get a marriage license in Tennessee for a common-law marriage from another state?

No, Tennessee will not issue marriage licenses validating common-law marriages established elsewhere. While it may acknowledge the legal standing of such a union, no official documentation of it can be obtained from the state since it does not permit new common-law marriages to be entered into today.

What kind of evidence is required to prove a pre-1918 common-law marriage in Tennessee?

Strong documentation is needed, such as official records listing the couple as married, joint tax filings, inheritance/probate records referring to them as husband and wife, biblical or other Witness statements of the mutual agreement to marry valid when made. Isolated pieces may not suffice on their own without corroborating a broadly recognized marriage agreement and public presentation as such.

Can a common-law divorce be obtained in Tennessee?

Yes, if a couple can definitively prove a pre-1918 common-law marriage established in Tennessee according to the criteria of the times, the state recognizes their union as legally married. As such, they can obtain a standard marital dissolution through the courts like any other Tennessee married couple.

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