Common Law Marriage in Iowa

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid LSC Funded
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Under Iowa law, there are 2 ways for two people* to be legally married. (See information in bold at the end of this resource.)

  1. Apply for a marriage license, have a ceremony with a magistrate, judge, or clergy
  2. Marriage by common law

To have a marriage by common law, these 3 things must be true:

  1. Both spouses have an agreement that they are married,
  2. Both spouses live together continuously as partners, and
  3. Both spouses publicly act like a married couple.

An agreement that they are married means:

  1. Both spouses must want to be married to each other, and
  2. Both spouses must agree that they are married.
  3. The agreement does not have to be in writing.
  4. No spoken agreement is required - just that they are married if they live together like spouses and act like a married couple.

These are not an agreement that they are married:

  1. Talking about getting married at a later date,
  2. One is or both are unsure whether they want to be married.

Living together continuously means:

  1. Live together as spouses, which generally means they have a sexual relationship with each other.
  2. No certain amount of time that spouses must live with each other.
  3. Must live together constantly for some period of time, not just sometimes or on weekends.

Publically acting like a married couple means:

  1. Couple must act married,
  2. Couple must hold themselves out as married or say that they are married.
  3. Examples of acting like a married couple are:
    • Using same last name
    • Wear wedding bands
    • Using "husband" or "wife" to describe the spouse in public
    • Using the terms "Mr. and Mrs." to describe the couple
    • Failing to correct others that call them a married couple
    • Sharing joint bank accounts
    • Sharing joint credit cards
    • Filing joint tax returns (which can only be done if the couple is married)
    • Anything else that would make others believe the couple is married

If you don't know if you have a common law marriage, but you don't want to be married, the court can decide whether there is a common law marriage.

  • If there is a common law marriage and the couple does not want to be married, they will have to file for divorce.
  • There is no common law divorce. If you have a common law marriage, to end it you must get a divorce.

* It is likely that same-sex couples can be considered married under Iowa common law. In April of 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that same-sex couples could be married in a civil ceremony. It is unlikely that same-sex couples could use evidence from before April 2009 to show that they have a common law marriage.

Last Review and Update: Jun 22, 2020

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