Common-Law Marriage, a Legal Relic, Still a Minefield in Some States

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Lisa Alexander and Jamie Brindel are getting married this spring. Yet because they lived together in a Columbia apartment last year, they may legally be married already.

Common-law marriage, a legal relic from medieval times, is still recognized in 11 states, including South Carolina and Oklahoma. But few people seem to know about its pitfalls.

A slip of the tongue or a hurried conversation could be costly. By publicly identifying a partner as a spouse, couples who never thought they were married could face divorce proceedings to end a relationship. "Luckily, it doesn't matter to us, because we're getting married anyway," Brindel said. "But imagine waking up one morning and finding out that you have to go to court and divorce your girlfriend? Whew." Common-law marriage developed from the unwritten law of medieval England where ministers were not always available when a couple wanted to get married. Despite its history, few people seem to know exactly what constitutes a common-law marriage, said Cynthia Bowman, a Northwestern University law professor. There is a widely held misconception that common-law marriage doesn't kick in until a couple has lived together for seven years. "Totally wrong," Bowman said. "They must get that from someone having to be gone for seven years before being declared legally dead. But that doesn't work for anything else." Brindel, 25, and Alexander, 22, found out about their likely common-law marriage through Alexander's classes at the University of South Carolina. "It doesn't seem to matter unless somebody sues, does it?" Brindel said, as he munched on burgers at a Columbia bar with his fiancee -- or is that now his wife? The lawsuits, however, can be long and nasty. Oscar-winning actor William Hurt had to fight a two-year legal battle from South Carolina to New York to prove that a dancer he lived with in Beaufort was not his wife. Sandra Jennings' claim was based on the fact that she lived with Hurt for 10 weeks in 1982 during the filming of The Big Chill and conversations Hurt had with local residents. She sued in New York, which abolished common-law marriage in 1933. Judges there ruled that while Jennings lived with Hurt and had a child with him, that wasn't enough to constitute a marriage. …