Legal Information: Federal


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January 30, 2018

Does a common-law marriage count as being "married" to the abuser for immigration purposes?

A marriage is valid under immigration law if it is valid in the jurisdiction where it took place unless there's a U.S. national policy that over-rides it.   For purposes of common-law marriages, a common-law marriage can be valid under immigration law as long as it was formed in a U.S. state or a country that recognizes common-law marriages under the law.  In other words, you and your spouse must have lived in a state that recognizes common-law marriages and you must have met the legal definition of common-law marriage in that state.  If a common-law marriage was properly, validly formed in a state that recognizes such marriages, it can be still be valid even if you are now applying for VAWA in a different state.*  For a list of U.S. states that recognize common-law marriage and each state's legal requirements, click here

Immigration officials may look at the following factors to determine if you have a valid common-law marriage:

  • When and where did the relationship begin?
  • What was the intent of you and the abuser with respect to what the relationship was to be?
  • Were you generally known as spouses by neighbors, friends, and the community?
  • Did either of you introduce one another as a spouse?
  • Did either of you purchase a life insurance policy describing one or the other as the beneficiary spouse?
  • Is there birth registration or school registration of your children showing each of you as the parents?
  • Is there a credit card account describing one of you as the spouse of the other?
  • Did either of you name the other one as the beneficiary spouse of the other’s pension rights?
  • Is there any other information that would tend to demonstrate that you both have, from the beginning, lived the type of existence that would be normal for a lawfully married couple?*

For help in gathering the necessary evidence to prove that you had a valid common-law marriage, please talk to an attorney who is properly trained in filing VAWA self-petitions – please do not attempt to apply for a VAWA self-petition on your own.  For national organizations with experience in general immigration law, please see our Immigration page. You can also find legal referrals by state on our Finding a Lawyer page.

* See USCIS website, Adjudicator's Field Manual, section 74.2(e)(no longer available online); see also USCIS Policy Manual, Part G, Chapter 2(B)