Common Law Marriage in Iowa- It’s More Than Just “Shackin Up”

June 1, 2009 | Erin Herbold

A more recent Iowa case regarding common-law marriage was decided on August 31, 2016.

In Iowa, to prove the existence of a lawful common law marriage, there must be substantial evidence of a present intent and agreement to be married, continuous cohabitation, and a public declaration that the parties are husband and wife (or, now, wife and wife, or husband and husband or “Party A” and “Party B”).  Here, a male/female couple met in 1993 and cohabitated continuously until the time of the man’s death in 2006. At the time the couple met, the man was married to a woman who was suffering from a brain tumor and was confined to a nursing home, unable to recognize him. She died in 2001. After her death, the man proposed to his girlfriend and she wore his ring, although there was never any formal marriage ceremony. The couple bought a home together, purchasing the property as single persons but owning it in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.  The couple also took out four mortgages on the home, as single persons.

There was some indication from credit card receipts, AAA memberships, and  2003-2006 tax returns (the couple’s  filing status was that of married filing jointly) that the parties did, indeed, hold themselves out as being married. However, in 2004, the man began indicating that he was single on his pension plan and cash distribution forms, without the woman’s knowledge. When the man died in 2006, despite the woman’s protests, the funeral director would not indicate the existence of a marriage on the death certificate. Further, the woman never objected to the man’s obituary, referring to her merely as his “loving companion.”

The trial court found that no common law marriage existed and denied the woman’s petition for declaratory judgment.   The woman appealed. The appellate court stated that the party asserting the marriage must prove, by a “preponderance of clear, consistent, and convincing evidence,” that the elements of a common law marriage were in existence. The court determined that the woman could not offer enough evidence to prove that the couple were holding themselves out to the public as married.  In addition, there were no witnesses presented that had ever heard the couple refer to themselves as married persons.. Therefore, no common-law marriage existed. Warner v. Layland, No. 9-145/08-0184, 2009 Iowa App. LEXIS 288 (Iowa Ct. App., Apr. 22, 2009).