No new common law marriages in Alabama starting January 1

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The new year will bring an end to common law marriages in Alabama. On January 1, 2017, a state law takes effect banning these unions which are legally binding even without a marriage ceremony. Alabama is one of just a handful of states that has continued to allow common law marriages.

To qualify, a man and woman must be able to marry, intend to marry, and present themselves as married. Signing a lease together or filing taxes jointly are just a couple of ways the last requirement can be met.

However, any common law marriages established before January 1, 2017 will remain valid. One local attorney wants to make sure people understand what exactly that means.

"You have to go through a ceremony.  You have to get a marriage license. You have to do it legally. By 'legally' I mean by the book, " said Attorney at Law Mark McDaniel.

McDaniel said he wants to make sure those who are already in common law marriages know what this means for them.

"What people don't understand is if you're married by common law in Alabama then you're just as married as if you went to the biggest wedding ceremony you could pay for," he explained.

McDaniel said just because this new law abolishes common law marriage, all the same rules still apply to already established unions. If you want to end the relationship, you have to get a divorce.

"You cannot walk off from that marriage.  If you walk off from that marriage and marry someone else that's bigamy," he said.

Bigamy is a federal crime. The problems with common law marriages is the difficulty that comes when couples want to end it.

"When you have a divorce situation you'll have one party coming in laying it out to you, and they meet the requirements. But you go to court and the other person is saying oh no we never agreed to be husband and wife. Then you look at the circumstantial evidence," said McDaniel.

Contrary to popular rumor, there is no set number of years a couple must live together to be considered part of a common law marriage.