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Common Law Marriage in Colorado

Did you know that you can become married in Colorado without a ceremony or license of any kind? It’s true. Colorado is one of several states that allow a man and a woman (It is an open question whether Colorado law would recognize a common law gay marriage, as gay marriage was not traditionally recognized under the common law) of lawful age to become married at common law.

The requirements for a common law marriage are different in each state that allows it, but in Colorado they are:

1. The couple agree that they are married, which is different from agreeing to get married in the future;

2. The couple live together after they reach this agreement; and

3. They hold themselves out to the world at large as being husband and wife.

These elements of common law marriage were set out by the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in the case of People v. Lucero, 747 P.2d 660 (Colo. 1987). In that case, the issue was whether the accused in a criminal case was married at common law to one of the prosecution’s witnesses. If so, the accused could prevent the witness from testifying against him by virtue of the well-recognized privilege that provides that, except that in very limited circumstances, a person may not be compelled to testify against his or her spouse in a criminal prosecution.

However, common law marriage is not limited to testimonial privileges in a criminal court. Under Colorado law, married is married for all purposes, regardless of whether that marriage was created by a ceremony with a marriage certificate conducted by a religious official or judge or was created at common law. If you are married, then you must obtain a dissolution of marriage (Colorado’s name for divorce) before you can lawfully marry someone else.

When the issue comes to court, the two parties might disagree on the first factor. Did they agree that they were married? However, the court will look to a third factor — did the couple hold themselves out as being married by filing joint income tax returns, by one providing the other with health insurance through employment, or did they own property together or maintain joint bank accounts, did they introduce each other socially as husband and wife — in order to determine whether an agreement to be married existed.

Again, if you are married at common law, you are married for all purposes, such as inheritance and healthcare decisions, and, in an appropriate case, may qualify for an award of maintenance (the Colorado law’s name for alimony) in a divorce setting.

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