How Do Courts Handle Common Law Spouses In Wrongful Death Lawsuits?

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States limit who can file wrongful death lawsuits to people who have legally recognized relationships with the decedent (e.g. spouses, children), which often leaves the deceased person's significant other with no way to recoup his or her losses if the couple wasn't married. Some states do acknowledge common law marriages, but you may still have trouble prevailing in your case for these two reasons.

Unable to Prove You Had a Common Law Marriage

To be considered a valid common law marriage, your relationship with the defendant must meet specific criteria. Although the requirements may vary a bit between different jurisdiction, they generally involve four aspects:

  • You were legally able to get married (e.g. you were both of age and had the mental capacity to do so)
  • You lived together for a minimum number of years (e.g. three years in New Hampshire)
  • You agreed to get married
  • You presented yourselves as spouses to your friends and family members

It can be challenging to prove that you have a common law marriage, especially when your partner is deceased and cannot confirm the status of your relationship. Additionally, some states have additional requirements and restrictions that can make it even more difficult to establish a legal connection to your loved one. For instance, even though same-sex marriage is legal in all states, some areas only recognize common law marriages between heterosexual partners.

It'll be critical to gather together as much supporting evidence as possible to make your case. Presenting a rental contract with both your names on it can establish when you started living together, for example. Having friends and family members testify as to the nature of your relationship can be immensely helpful as well. Your attorney can provide you with more information and ideas on how you can establish you have a common law marriage with the court.

Another Spouse Enters the Picture

Common law marriages are legally binding, and you must get a court divorce to separate from each other and be seen as two single people again. So, even if your significant other leaves you and marries someone else in a formal ceremony, your common law marriage to that person would still be considered valid if the two of you never actually got divorced.

Thus, you would be perfectly within your rights to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against a responsible party and collect compensation for your losses. Having said that, though, a couple of issues may pop up that prevent you from taking a case to court.

Another person could usurp your position as the legal spouse, especially if the individual has a marriage certificate and you are unable to adequately prove you had a common law marriage with the decedent. This can also happen if the decedent and his/her new spouse lived in a state that doesn't recognize common law marriages. The judge may throw out your claim and only recognize the spouse with legal marriage documents. In that situation, you would have to appeal the decision to sort things out, which can take time and money.

Alternatively, the court may acknowledge you as a legal spouse of the decedent, but they may also recognize the other person as one. This will happen if the other person can successfully prove they honestly believed their marriage was valid at the time they got together (e.g. they truly didn't know the decedent had to divorce you). In this case, any proceeds won from a wrongful death lawsuit will be split between both parties involved which, of course, means less compensation for you.

There are other ways a common law marriage can impact the way a wrongful death lawsuit is handled. It's best to connect with an attorney who can advise on you how to proceed with the case to get the outcome you want.

To learn more, contact a lawyer that offers wrongful death attorney services.

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