Iowa Court of Appeals Says Common-Law Marriage Established

September 6, 2016 | Kristine A. Tidgren

It is well-known that fewer people in the United States are getting married. In fact, according to the CDC, marriage rates in the United States have been in a steady decline since the 1980s. Conversely, cohabitation rates are steadily rising.

A recent case from the Iowa Court of Appeals reminds us that sometimes a cohabitation relationship can lead to a common-law marriage. This means that when the relationship ends, a party can seek standard dissolution remedies such as alimony or an equitable property division.

Although it’s not easy to prove a common-law marriage, last week’s court of appeals case suggests that it may be easier than some would think.


At the time the case arose in 2013, the parties had been involved in a relationship for more than 20 years. Although the parties’ testimony differed on important facts, it was clear that they lived together during some of those 20 years. Because the man spent some time in prison and traveled frequently for work, however, it was also clear that the cohabitation was not constant. The man also offered evidence that he owned a separate home.

The woman presented testimony that she and the man had signed “vows” evidencing their intent to be married. The man urged that he signed the paper only under duress from the woman. The woman testified that the man publically called her his “wife” and that he did not correct her when she called him her “husband.” Nonetheless, the evidence showed that the parties used separate bank accounts, primarily used different surnames, did not wear wedding rings, and never owned property together. The woman received public assistance based upon her income alone.

Dissolution  Action and Appeal

After they ended their relationship, the woman filed a petition for a dissolution of marriage, asserting the existence of a common-law marriage. The trial court found in her favor, awarding her $1,500 per month in alimony and a portion of the man’s pension account. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed.

The court reiterated that claims of common-law marriage in Iowa are scrutinized carefully and that the burden of proof rests with the party asserting the claim.

The court then examined the evidence in light of the three elements the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled must be proved to establish a common-law marriage:

(1) Present intent and agreement to be married by both parties;

(2) Continuous cohabitation; and

(3) Public declaration that the parties are husband and wife.

In re Marriage of Winegard, 278 N.W.2d 505, 510 (Iowa 1979).

After examining the evidence de novo, the court found that the woman established the existence of a common-law marriage. First, the court found that she intended to be married and that the man’s conduct reflected that intent. Second, the court found that the parties cohabited together continuously for many years. Although it was clear that the man traveled for work extensively, the evidence supported a finding that he would return to the woman when not away for work. Finally, the court found that the two held themselves out publicly as married. This, the court called, the “acid test” of a common-law marriage.


It should be evident from this case that whether a common-law marriage exists is subject to interpretation. The credibility of the parties will be an important factor if the trial court is faced with the question. Note that Iowa has no “statutory period” of cohabitation that must exist before a common-law marriage can be established. Rather, the question is whether the three elements set forth above are proven. 

The case is In re Marriage of Capalite, No. 15-0909 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 31, 2016).