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Witness Post: Common Law

One of my brother-in-laws used to joke that his first born daughter had learned to speak. He had been encouraging her to use an essential word even before “Mama or Dada.” The word was “Elope.” In an era when weddings can be like a potlatch and nearly break the bank of the parents of the bride, he was pushing for a change in traditions. “What’s wrong with a common-law marriage, after all.”

Oxford Dictionary Definition:


  1. The part of English law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.

    More example sentences: “She decided to forego the typical elopement and had a common-law living arrangement.”
  2. The body of English law as adopted and adapted by the different States of the US.

    Compare with civil law

     3.  As modifier denoting a partner in a marriage recognized in some jurisdictions (excluding the UK) as valid by common law, though not brought about by a civil court or ecclesiastical ceremony.

‘a common-law husband’ ‘a common-law wife’ ‘a common-law partner’
More example sentences:
  1. Denoting a partner in a relationship in which a man and woman cohabit for a period long enough to suggest stability.

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Q: So How Do You Feel About Common Law?

A: “It’s humiliating” to be a parent of children in such a relationship.

But, why? You ask. What makes it so problematic for a parent?

The real answer is wrapped up in generations of nurturing families and cousins and children who were raised as Catholics. Life-long traditionalists, it seems an easier route to get married, sign the papers, have the wedding, and move on in life as a married couple. That age-old tradition is challenging enough as it is.

In the binary world where most of us live, a man or woman would leave his or her family, find a mate, and with the benefit of witnesses and the law, enter into a covenant with this other person for as long as they both shall live. Thank goodness the courts have seen to it that these rights and privileges have been extended to same sex marriages. Such unions, such marriages, such sacraments are recognized in every state and many countries. And with those designations come rights.

The couple has the right to share a home, raise children, care for each other in sickness and health, wealth and poverty, in joy and tragedy. At the end one’s life, as long as they have a will, their treasures (and debts) pass to the surviving spouse and the next generation. No judge will contest such a distribution of assets.

Same-sex marriage ruling puts health benefits in spotlight

The laws of marriage keep the relationship sacred and inclusive. If one partner gets sick and goes to the hospital, the other can speak for them in the case of an emergency. It is easier if everyone has an advanced medical directive, of course, but in lieu of that piece of paper it seems right to have someone who can speak for the infirmed.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has raised these health concerns to an acute level, as so few people who could really speak for them in the time of need. The number of people who are dying alone is staggering. The Advisory Board estimates that over 10% of those who have succumbed to Covid-19 are without a person to claim the body and hold a funeral. That could translate to thousands of people in the US who die physically alone and legally forgotten. No common law marriage can substitute for the word coming from an immediate family members, especially in these dire circumstances.

Yes, there are problems when the bride or groom focus more on the wedding than the marriage. Yes, there are inequities which arise in every marriage. Yes, there are blessings that arise from couples who co-habitate without the benefit of a ceremony. The fact is that we live in a couples world. We need each other. And if I am nearing the end of my life, I want someone by me who loves me and has the right to speak for me should I be incapacitated. It comes down to that one thought.