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Common Law Marriage

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Interviewer: So your husband, Tim Burton... actually, not your husband. How do you refer to Tim: your life partner, significant other, boyfriend?
HBC: I don't know; I haven't got a satisfactory word! Father of my bastards, perhaps?

For one reason or another, this "married" couple just never legally tied the knot.

Maybe one of them is an immortal vampire without Undead Tax Exemption. Maybe there were legal issues precluding an official ceremony/registration. Maybe one didn't want to get married but gradually ended up in a situation similar to it due to external circumstances. Maybe they always meant to but just never got around to it. Regardless of the reason, they are, for all intent and purposes, a married couple.

They may have children together or even be referred to as married, but they never got anything formalized. This doesn't mean that the couple never gets married; just that they go a very long time without doing so and little actually changes after the wedding. Many stories even end with the two getting officially married in a ceremony.

The specific term "common law" is unlikely to be used today unless the story is historical, as the concept was born from a time when there was more stigma against unmarried cohabitation, or a question of legal status comes up, as some jurisdictions still legally recognize "common law marriages" while others don't (Check yours before moving in or separating!). A "common law marriage" in 1958 would simply be a "long-term relationship" today. In fact, nowadays couples outside conservative cultures are expected to live together before tying the knot, to be sure their day-to-day lifestyles are compatible.

A modern-day couple would only fall under this trope if they specifically choose not to marry or are legally unable to do so, such as if they're LGBT in a conservative country, or if it's a fantasy setting and one partner isn't human or biologically alive—vampire, android, alien, etc.—and thus they're not legally recognized as a person (though if such pairings are common, fighting for legal recognition could be a plot of its own).

See Happily Married. Metaphorical Marriage represents a wedding-like moment that however is not an official wedding. It may result from a "Not Really Married" Plot. It may result in a Heroic Bastard. For more information, see the Wikipedia page.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Beastars, Gosha and Toki, who were Legoshi's grandparents lived together for decades and even had a daughter, but due to laws prohibiting interspecies marriage never were able to tie the knot. Even once those laws were lifted they still couldn't get married due to Gosha being a poisonous komodo dragon and Toki being a wolf, due to the danger he could pose to her due to his natural poison.
  • Trisha Elric and Van Hohenheim in Fullmetal Alchemist were never married despite having two sons together. This may have been due to Hohenheim being immortal and generally refraining from having close relationships with mortals.
  • In the Gundam Wing sequel novel Frozen Teardrops, Heero and Relena are living together in a nice house on Mars, and are contemplating having a baby. They have had a wedding, but the marriage was not legally binding, because they were denied when they went to get the marriage license, because Heero couldn't produce documentation saying who his father was. When he finally finds that documentation, he suggests to Relena that they go get the legal aspect straightened out, so their eventual children won't have to go through the rigamarole and social stigma that he's had to go through.
  • Implied in Lyrical Nanoha with Nanoha and Fate. They may or may not be a romantic couple and are certainly not married, but undeniably live together and raise Vivio as a daughter together.
  • Yosho and Airi in Tenchi Muyo! are common law married due to their complicated history. They were classmates at the Galaxy Police Academy and eventually formed a relationship, where Airi became pregnant shortly before Yosho ran away to Earth. They met back up years later when Airi found him, their daughter Minaho in tow, and they got married by common law since Yosho was still officially MIA and their respective planets are bitter rivals so their relationship would be a major political bomb were it to be formalized.
  • Tweeny Witches: Jidan and Atelia are referred to as husband and wife, having lived together for long and produced a son named Lennon. Because of the laws against relationships between witches and humans, they couldn't have legally married even if they wanted to.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • Eleutherophobia: How I Live Now features a lesbian who calls her partner "wife", but Word of God is that they're not officially married because same-sex marriage wasn't legal in 2001 California.
  • Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past: Harry internally refers to Hermione having been Ron's common-law wife in the Bad Future, when remembering how her death affected Ron, but due to society collapsing around them and their constant hiding from the Death Eaters, they never had the chance for a formal wedding.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Lincoln: Thaddeus is shown in bed with his (black) housekeeper who he loves as his wife, as interracial marriages are still unacceptable in society.

  • In Dune, Leto Atreides and Jessica are for all intents and purposes married, but she's officially only a bound concubine to keep Leto single for political maneuvering. This is also the case for their son, Paul, and Chani after he is made Emperor of the Known Universe and has to marry Princess Irulan for political reasons. This trope is even invoked by Jessica in the final lines of the novel.
    Jessica: Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she'll live as less than a concubine never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she's bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine history will call us wives.
  • Earth's Children: In The Valley of Horses, Jondalar lives with Serenio and her son Darvolo for around two years. Jondalar and Serenio have an intimate relationship while also sleeping with other people, (although their culture doesn't quite have the same concept of infidelity as modern society) and Jondalar is viewed as a father figure by Darvolo. Jondalar eventually tells Serenio he thinks they should make their relationship official, asking her to become his mate and saying it will be an honor to have Darvolo as "the true son of [his] hearth". However, Serenio rejects him because despite their shared history and her feelings for him, she knows he's just settling and it wouldn't make either of them happy. Jondalar realizes she's right and they amicably break up.
  • In The Neapolitan Novels almost all the married couples of the protagonists' ended up living with someone else other than their lawful spouse, with said cohabitation lasting far longer than the marriages. For example, Lila's marriage with Stefano lasts a couple of years, but she goes on living for decades with Enzo.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, Oberyn Martell and Ellaria Sand are "paramours," which in their native Dorne refers to a noble and their romantic partner that they can't legally marry, such as a bastard (in Ellaria's case), a commoner, or the same sex. Even if the noble takes a legal spouse for the purpose of joining houses, it's an open secret that their real partner is their paramour. In the rest of Westeros, such behavior is considered scandalous, but Dorne prides itself on being socially and sexually progressive.
  • The Stormlight Archive: The Mr. Vice Guy Highprince Sebarial and his longterm mistress Palona are Happily Married in every way except the marriage itself; she's the head of his household and has a lot of de facto authority in his warcamps, which she uses very judiciously. It's mentioned that he's proposed to her several times.
  • In Tales of the Otori, Muto Shizuka and Arai Daiichi have been together for years, and Shizuka has borne him two sons, but they have never formally married.
  • In Witches Abroad, Desiderata Hollow says Ella Saturday was "born out of wedlock, but none the worse for it. I mean, it wasn't that they couldn't get married, they just never got around to it."

    Live-Action TV 
  • Dharma & Greg: Dharma's parents deliberately chose never to marry. They consider this a beautiful symbol of choosing to stay together again every day, but Dharma confesses towards the end of the show that she spent her entire childhood panicking that tomorrow would be the day they decided not to.
  • On an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob and Laurie discover that, since Laurie lied about her age when she married Rob, their marriage was illegitimate. The next episode was about them marrying for real.
  • In Game of Thrones, Prince Oberyn Martell cannot marry his paramour Ellaria Sand because she's considered too lowborn (the bastard daughter of a lord), but they act like a married couple in every other sense; they have been together for years, have children together, Ellaria is stepmother to Oberyn's older daughters and she accompanies him to formal events such as royal weddings.
  • The Gilmore Girls revival reveals that, ten years later, Luke and Lorelai are still together, but still unmarried. After Lorelai reevaluates the relationship, in the final episode they finally get married.
  • How I Met Your Mother: The series finale, which is set over multiple years, reveals that this was the case for Ted and Tracy. The two were engaged, but the wedding was postponed after Tracy got pregnant...twice. After being engaged for five years and having two children together, Ted reproposes and they get married just a few days later.

    Video Games 
  • Played for Drama in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation when Aveline's parents Jeanne and Philippe couldn't get legally married due to miscegenation laws, so she was his placee bride. Phillipe ended up marrying a white woman named Madeline, who became Aveline's stepmother.
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, this is what happens with your love interests unless you marry Alistair or Anora. With Leiliana, Zevran, and Morrigan, you never officially marry, but you're still together 10 years later during Dragon Age: Inquisition. In Morrigan's case, the two of you are even raising the child you conceived in the first game.
  • A more questionable case crops up in Star Wars: The Old Republic with Darth Malgus and Eleena Daru. Eleena was a Twi'lek slave Malgus acquired, using her as a Sex Slave and for various tasks, but grew fond of her. Eventually, the pair considered each other this, but Eleena had no legal standing in the Empire other than being a Sith Lord's prized property. Malgus also beat her when he was angry (and being a Sith, he was often angry), and when another Sith pointed out she was a potential liability, he murdered his "wife" in her sickbed. He faced no legal repercussions for this. Sith are above the law in the Empire, and Eleena was "merely" a Twi'lek Sex Slave as far as Imperial law saw it.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time: Zig-zagged with Jake and Lady Rainicorn. They've been dating since before the series began, are still together five in-series years later by the finale, and in a song Jake once described Lady Rainicorn as "basically my wife." However, they only lived in the same house when they were raising their children—which only took a few weeks.
  • Steven Universe:
    • The episode "Gem Harvest" reveals that despite Steven's parents living together for many years before eventually having their son, it turns out that Greg and Rose Quartz were never formally married, much to the disgust of Greg's cousin Andy.
      Uncle Andy: What do you mean you weren't technically married?
    • Ruby and Sapphire have been together for 5,750 years, but marriage is a foreign concept to Gems so it never occurred to them to marry. However, in "The Question", Ruby, at Steven's suggestion, proposes to Sapphire to mark their reunion, who accepts, and they are married two episodes later in "Reunited".
  • Before the start of the series, Krolia and Keith's father from Voltron: Legendary Defender lived together as a couple and had a son together, but had no way of legally marrying on Earth. Due to circumstances parting them they only lived together for a few years, but the two had every intention of living together for the rest of their lives.
  • Wakfu: After the season two finale, Sadlygrove and Evangelyne started living together. After a while, Sadlygrove tries to propose, but gets to distracted by Evangelyne revealing she's pregnant. Several more years later, they actually get married.
  • Young Love: Angela and Stephen live together and have a child, but have hang-ups about the institution of marriage (they get engaged in the season 1 finale, but call the wedding off at the last minute).

    Real Life 
  • In some ancient legislations, such unions could be automatically upgraded to full-blown marriages, such as Ancient Rome.
  • In certain US states such as Texas, common law marriage is legally recognized and has all the same legal rights as formal marriage; the only difference is that a ceremony is not performed.
  • In many ancient societies, this type of marriage was regular marriage. Formal weddings were reserved for royalty and nobility; everyone else just moved in together with little or no fanfare.
  • Historically, it's been common for European princes to take long-term untitled mistresses as common law wives and even have multiple illegitimate children with them. For instance, several sons of King George III were living in such arrangements before the Prince Regent's only legitimate daughter died. Afterward, they were forced to abandon their mistresses and find respectable wives to produce heirs with, an obligation that eventually produced Queen Victoria. Her uncle and predecessor King William IV notably spent twenty years cohabiting with a woman and even had an astonishing ten children with her before being pressured to marry a German princess.note 
  • In places where same-sex marriage isn't legally recognized, this is the default status of long-term queer couples. Even if vows are exchanged, such occasions are often referred to as "commitment ceremonies" rather than weddings since they hold no legal status. Where this really harms queer couples is if one partner dies without a will; a particularly vindictive family can swoop in and claim the deceased's assets (including the couple's home if it was in the deceased's name) since the surviving partner has no legal recourse. Technically any cohabiting couple faces that risk, but it was heartbreakingly common with gay male couples during the AIDS crisis. Some jurisdictions have come up with civil unions or domestic partnerships to offer limited benefits of marriage—sometimes being marriage in all but name—but LGBT advocates have called them out for their "separate but equal" nature.note  One way some couples got around this was for the older member to legally adopt the younger one as their "child", to ensure they received the inheritance.
  • Religious sects that practice polygamy but live someplace where it's outlawed essentially fall into this, where you have men with a single legal wife and one or more "spirit wives," considered married in their religious community but not legally recognized as such. Utah has a high number of Fundamentalist Mormons who are polygamous (not to be confused with mainline Mormons who banned the practice in 1890), but since the state is one of the handful in the US that still recognizes common law marriage, Utah takes the standard ban against polygamy one step further by making it illegal (as in, a criminal offense) to even present oneself as having multiple wives. A few of these communities have moved to Mexico, where polygamy is still unrecognized but not criminalized.
  • In France during the ancien regime, there was the concept of a 'secret' marriage: a marriage (typically between people of uneven rank) that was recognized as valid by the Catholic Church (meaning the couple was not committing the sin of fornication when they had sex), but was never registered, and therefore never recognized as valid, by the French government. Louis XIV had a secret marriage with his last mistress, Madame de Maintenon, and his son Louis the Grand Dauphin had a secret marriage with his mistress.