Women holding babyA traditional marriage begins with a ceremony and a marriage license. In most states, only a man and a woman can be legally married, although a few states allow same-sex marriages. Secular marriage gives each spouse legal rights and responsibilities. For those who can't or don't want to get married, there are alternatives depending on where they live. State laws change periodically so check for recent updates before making a decision.

Many Couples Live Together

Living together, also called cohabitation, has become more popular in the United States. In 1982, the percentage of women living together with a man was only three percent. By 2012, that figure had increased to 11 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many couples live together before marrying, while others live together with no intention of marrying. Couples who simply live together have no legal rights or obligations toward each other, and can end the relationship at any time. An increasing number of these couples are entering into more formal “cohabitation agreements,” usually drawn up by an attorney.

A Few States Allow Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage, also called informal marriage, is an agreement to be married without a wedding or a state-issued marriage license. The couple agrees to be married, tells others they're married, and lives together as husband and wife. Common law marriage is currently recognized in only nine states: Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, and in the District of Columbia. Five states: Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, no longer recognize common law marriage. Couples in these states who formed common law marriages before the laws changed are still considered to be married.

Civil Unions Give Couples Legal Rights

Some states allow civil unions for same-sex and opposite-sex couples, which grant these couples certain legal rights. Each state has its own rules. For example, couples in civil unions in Delaware, Hawaii, and Rhode Island have the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. In other states, including Illinois and New Jersey, they only have some of the rights of married couples.

Domestic Partnerships Give State-Level Rights

A domestic partnership usually gives an unmarried couple rights to employee and state benefits, including health insurance and pension benefits. In states that allow domestic partnerships, the couple must register their relationship with the state or local government. These laws change periodically, but typically they apply to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. State laws can't give couples rights to federal benefits like Social Security benefits and federal tax deductions.

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