Rhode Island is one of few states that recognize common law marriages. The Rhode Island Supreme Court first recognized the validity of common law marriage in the seminal case Holgate v. United Electric Rys. Co., 47 R.I. 337 (1926). Since rendering its Holgate decision, the Supreme Court has expanded upon and reaffirmed the validity of common law marriages in its subsequent case law.
In Rhode Island, the existence of a common law marriage must be established by "clear and convincing evidence" that the parties seriously intended to enter into the husband-wife relationship. The intent of the parties may be inferred from cohabitation, declarations, reputation, and other circumstantial evidence. The parties must “mutually and presently intend to be husband and wife” as opposed to merely promising to become husband and wife at some point in the future. Therefore, the parties must have the capacity to enter into the marriage and must be free of impediments based on capacity or relationship.
Second, the parties’ conduct must be “of such a character as to lead to a belief in the community that they were married.” Such a belief may be inferred from cohabitation, declarations, and reputation among friends and family. The reputation to be established must be general and uniform.
The focus of the inquiry is not the duration of cohabitation, but rather “the origin” of the cohabitation and whether the character of the cohabitation created a reputation of marriage. In Williams v. Herrick, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that “the origin of the cohabitation must have been consistent with a matrimonial intent, and the cohabitation must have been of such a character … as to lead to the belief in the community that a marriage existed, and thereby to create the reputation of marriage.” Therefore, while the length of cohabitation is a factor, there is no specific length of time required to establish a common law marriage so long as all of the elements are present.
It should also be noted that a formal ceremony is also not required in finding the existence of a common law marriage.
The Williams decision provides an excellent example of the application of the legal analysis that must be done in a common law marriage case. It provides guidance as to which facts the Court will look at in determining whether a common law marriage exists.