If you are in a loving, committed relationship, then you have probably been asked a million times "why don't you get married?" But there are lots of couples who choose to be together indefinitely without a marriage ceremony.
The reasons behind this choice can be endless, from young couples who don't plan any major life events to older couples who don't plan to have children, share a mortgage, etc. And then there are couples who just don't believe that traditional marriage is right for them.
But, whether you agree with the institution of marriage or not, there are benefits to being married, namely that the legal status allows you to share tax benefits, health benefits, family benefits and more. Luckily, there are options for couples who are interested in alternatives to marriage.
Common Law Marriage
A common law marriage is essentially a marriage based on time spent living together and behaving as a couple. It's essentially a way to get married based on time invested in the relationship vs. a formal event stating that you are married.
It is legally recognized in ten states and the District of Columbia, and recognized with some restrictions in five additional states. In addition to a number of years spent living together in the same home, a couple claiming common law must prove they have been in a marital-type relationship for the entire duration. In other words, you can't be roommates for 10 years and then claim to be married; you must be in a relationship that can be considered a marriage.
The rules vary from state to state, but to maximize the benefits of a common law marriage, a couple must legally agree to common law status, at which time they are expected to file joint tax returns and proclaim their marriage on legal documents such as applications, leases, birth certificates, etc.
As with a traditional marriage, a common law marriage is legally binding once it has been acknowledged by both parties, and must be legally terminated in order to become null.
Best For: If you live in a state that allows it, a common law marriage is best for a couple that has already been living together and functioning as a married couple for many years. By adding the legal status of common law, the couple doesn't need to go through the formal marriage process, but can still take advantage of the legal benefits of being married. Of course -- that means that if they choose to separate, they will need to go through a legal divorce.
A domestic partnership entitles a couple to benefits such as joint tax returns, Social Security, health and life insurance, death benefits, parental rights and family leave rights just like a legally married couple.
A domestic partnership ensures a couple will be at a higher level of relationship in terms of being able to visit each other in the hospital and share parenting, but without the complications involved if they decide to break up. In other words, it provides many of the benefits of marriage without the downside of complicated divorce laws. However, domestic partnerships are not recognized by all states and countries, which is the greatest challenge to couples who choose this option.
Best for: A domestic partnership is best for couples who are committed to each other but who, for whatever reason, do not wish to be legally bound to each other for life. The downsides include the lack of recognition in every state and country, but it can still be a viable option for couples for whom that is not an issue.
A civil union provides a couple with the same state benefits that married couples enjoy, but because they are only available in select states, the benefits do not extend to the federal level. Established in 2000, the main purpose of a civil union was to legally recognize the relationships of same-sex couples at the state level before gay marriage was legalized federally in 2015.
Civil unions have somewhat limited validity due to their state-based powers. For example, if a couple crosses state lines, there is no guarantee that their union will be acknowledged. The lack of federal coverage also means that a couple will not benefit from tax breaks, pensions, family insurance, Medicaid, etc.
Best for: With gay marriage legal on a federal level, the utility of a civil union is questionable. A couple would need to have a specific reason to pick this choice over the fairly flexible domestic partnership, which provides better legal protection with similarly low requirements if the couple chooses to separate.
At the end of the day, the fastest, easiest and most legally-binding manner in which to benefit from being married is to have a traditional marriage ceremony. However, some couples take advantage of the time invested and claim common law status after decades of being together. This can be a real benefit for couples that didn't see a reason to get married until parenting, ageing or sickness became a topic they had to address. Couples considering a domestic partnership or civil union will be eligible for select benefits, but at a much lower threshold than either traditional or common law marriage.
What you choose depends mainly on your life stage, the status of your relationship and what you perceive you need out of your marriage.
Malini Bhatia is the founder of Marriage.com. Malini's background in business and communications provided her with the knowledge to build a content company, but it is her deep passion in helping people develop and maintain positive relationships that inspired her to create Marriage.com. Malini lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 11 years and two daughters.