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Six Types of Marital Status

and Their Legal Implications

Last Updated: September 07, 2023

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Marital status can be a fundamental aspect of our identities and significantly shape our lives. Your legal rights and obligations can vastly change depending on whether you're married, common-law, separated, divorced, widowed, or single.


Marriage is a legally recognized union between two people, typically formalized through a ceremony and documented by a marriage license and certificate.
State laws govern marriage in the United States. So, the rules and laws surrounding marriage can differ across the country. Look at the minimum marriage age in the United States. In Massachusetts, it’s 14 years old, and in West Virginia, it’s 18 years old.
Being married in the United States has various perks, but the specifics vary depending on the state and individual circumstances. Here are some common legal rights and benefits of being married:
  1. Combined tax filing : Married couples can file joint federal and state tax returns, potentially benefiting from tax advantages or credits.
  2. Insurance benefits : Spouses may receive preferential 'marriage' or 'family rate' on health, car, and liability insurance policies.
  3. Inheritance rights : Upon a spouse’s death, the surviving spouse has the legal right to fully inherit their shared, marital property and assets.
Social Security and benefits: Spouses are usually eligible to receive each other's Social Security, health coverage, pension, worker's compensation, or disability benefits.

Common-law married

Common-law marriage is a legally recognized marital union between two individuals who haven’t obtained a marriage license or participated in a formal marriage ceremony.
Common-law marriage partners have similar rights and benefits as those that obtain a traditional marriage, including tax and insurance benefits, inheritance rights, and Social Security benefits.
Contrary to popular belief, common-law marriage isn’t automatic, meaning it can’t be established simply by living together for a certain time (e.g., seven years).
Rather, it’s a choice to be common-law married. Furthermore, there are requirements for common-law marriage that usually include the following:
  1. The mutual consent and agreement of both parties
  2. The couple living together and cohabitating as spouses
  3. The couple holding themselves out as married in the eyes of the public (e.g., using the same last name)
  4. The couple intending to have a lifelong commitment to each other
As of 2023, there are only seven states, plus the District of Columbia, that recognize and allow new common-law marriages to be formed. The seven common-law states are:
Even though only seven states allow couples to form common-law marriages, all U.S. states must honor valid, out-of-state common-law marriages. For example, suppose you’re common-law married in Colorado and move to Vermonta state that has never granted its residents common-law marriages. Vermont has to recognize your common-law marriage.
All states recognize out-of-state common-law marriages because of Article IV of the U.S. Constitution. Under Article IV, states have to give ' full faith and credit' to the laws in other states, meaning courts must respect the laws from other states—including marriage laws.
Some states used to grant common-law marriages, but have since outlawed it. These states still recognize the common-law unions that they once granted. For example, South Carolina abolished common-law marriage on July 24, 2019, but continues to recognize all the common-law marriages that were formed before this date.


Being separated means spouses live separate and apart while remaining legally married. Therefore, you can't marry a new partner while separated.
Separating can result in a variety of outcomes. Sometimes, spouses separate and get back together, while other times, spouses separate permanently. Often, spouses separate as an initial step towards divorce.
When discussing separation, it’s important to note the term “legal separation.”
Legal separation means spouses request a legal separation order from the court. This order may specify things like property division, alimony, and child custody and support. You can use a Separation Agreement to sort out these matters with your spouse before seeking a legal separation.
In the United States, 43 states recognize legal separations. The seven states that don’t recognize legal separation are:
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Mississippi
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
Since legal separation allows spouses to live separate lives while remaining legally married, it can be a solution for those unable to divorce. For example, some spouses may not divorce for religious reasons.
While legally separated, spouses may still be considered married for purposes of taxes, insurance, healthcare, and other legal matters.
In some states, a legal separation can be a basis for a later divorce. If the couple decides to end their marriage permanently, they may be able to convert the legal separation into a divorce by filing additional paperwork.


Divorce is the legal termination of a marriage through a formal legal process. It dissolves the marital relationship, ending the legal obligations and rights that come with marriage.
After a divorce, your relationship status returns to single. However, your obligations may differ from that of a never-married single person, depending on the terms of your divorce.
For example, depending on the circumstances, a divorce may involve awarding spousal support, also known as alimony, to one spouse by the other. So, although divorce makes you single again, you may have residual obligations resulting from your marriage.
Following a divorce, updating legal documents to reflect the changed circumstances is crucial. This may include modifying your Will, Living Will, and any Powers of Attorney in which your ex-spouse is your representative or beneficiary. Updating these documents will ensure that your wishes are fulfilled and prevent unintended consequences.


Being widowed is a unique relationship status that arises when a person's spouse passes away. Besides the emotional impact of losing a life partner, there are legal considerations for widowed individuals.
From a legal standpoint, being widowed means that the marriage is terminated due to the death of one spouse. For that reason, widowed people are single and free to remarry.
Being widowed also means that the surviving spouse automatically inherits the deceased spouse’s ownership of their marital property. The surviving spouse may also inherit the deceased’s separately owned property, depending on their Last Will and Testament terms.
While on the topic of Wills, it’s a good idea to review and update one's own estate planning documents after losing a spouse. Widowed individuals may also need to update beneficiaries on their life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and other financial instruments.

Not married

It’s important to differentiate between not being married and being single. Legally speaking, your marital status doesn’t change if you date someone. Your marital status is the same as a single person: unmarried.
Your marital status only changes when you become legally married.
Single people who have never been married generally have complete autonomy over their legal and financial affairs. They are not subject to spousal obligations or legal rights tied to marriage. They have the freedom to make decisions regarding their assets, healthcare, and other personal matters without the involvement or consent of a spouse.
For divorced individuals, the legal implications differ depending on the specifics of the divorce settlement. Divorced individuals may have ongoing financial obligations to their former spouse, such as paying alimony or child support.

What about being engaged?

Engagement is an exciting milestone in a romantic relationship. But, it’s a personal and emotional decision and ultimately doesn’t change one’s legal status.
Only when a couple marries are they afforded marriage rights and obligations. That being said, fiances should consider the following:
  1. Create a Prenuptial Agreement : A prenup outlines how assets, debts, and other financial matters would be handled in case of divorce or separation. It can provide clarity and protection for both parties, ensuring a fair and equitable division of property.
  2. Update estate plan : Engaged couples should prepare to review and update their estate plans once they marry. This includes creating or modifying wills, trusts, and beneficiary designations.
  3. Understand joint ownership : As the engaged couple starts planning their life together, they may consider making joint purchases such as a home, a car, or other significant assets. Understanding the legal implications of joint ownership, titling, and financial obligations associated with these purchases is essential.
  4. Make healthcare decisions : Being engaged does not automatically grant the couple legal authority to make medical decisions for one another. To ensure that their wishes are respected in case of incapacitation, it is recommended for engaged couples to establish healthcare proxies or medical power of attorney.

Understanding your marital status

Our marital statuses are fundamental aspects of our identities and play a significant role in shaping our lives.
In exploring the diverse types of marital status, we have gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies and legal ramifications surrounding relationships.
From the sacred union of marriage to the complexities of common-law marriages, the challenges of separation and divorce, the emotional journey of widowhood, and the freedom of being unmarried, each marital status carries its own unique characteristics and considerations.