How ‘Common Law Marriages' work in Wisconsin

Common law marriage is not recognized in Wisconsin. Cohabitation, regardless of the duration, is not recognized as a legal marriage in Wisconsin. For this reason, those in a cohabitant relationship will need to file what is known as a WATTS case to legally divide property and protect their rights.

Is Common Law marriage (Cohabitation) legal in Wisconsin?

Common law marriage, or cohabitation, is not recognized in Wisconsin. It does not matter how long the couple has lived together. The circumstances surrounding the cohabitation do matter either. A common law marriage is not considered a legal marriage.

Wisconsin Cohabitation Law and Property Rights

Traditional marriage can provide structure and meaning to the lives of many happy couples, in the event of a divorce, it also provides the legal structure and meaning necessary to resolve disputes related to custody, property, and finances, which all naturally result from long-term cohabitation.  For many couples, either through choice or circumstance, do not choose to marry, and instead opt to live together. This arrangement can be just as satisfying as marriage for happy couples, however, it can present a range of legal problems if the relationship ends un-amicably.

While Some states have laws regarding the division of property in long-standing relationships, Wisconsin is not among them. There are no common law marriages in Wisconsin. The length of time you have been living with a domestic partner is irrelevant, yet, the myth of “common law” marriage persists.

Filing a WATTS Case to Divide Property

Although the Wisconsin legal system does not specifically address  “common-law” marriage, un-married, long-term cohabitants can find many of the same legal processes and protections available through Watts actions.

Although Watts cases are not legally designated as “common law”, they provide Wisconsin residents with the procedural tools necessary to resolve the financial and property disputes that often arise when a long-term relationship ends. In some ways Watts proceedings resemble traditional divorce actions. However, Watts cases are strictly civil actions and they do not cover custody or on-going support.

Let's look at an example: Eric and Jessica have been together since college and have been living together for 10 years, renting an apartment in Milwaukee where they both work full-time, each making approximately $35,000 a year. Having each accumulated a fair amount of student loan and credit card debt, like many other millennials, they have decided to not get married.

By appearance, Eric and Jessica's domestic life was identical to that of a married couple; each contributing in their own way to expenses, sharing bills, and even making a handful of large purchases. The most significant of which was the purchase of used car which cost the couple $9,000, after Eric's car stopped running the previous winter.

Jessica who has always been more responsible with money, provided $1,000 as a down payment, cosigned the the loan for the remainder, and has made a majority of the payments. The car's title is in Eric's name.

Years of mounting financial stress have taken their toll and the couple split up. Because she's made a majority contribution to the purchase of the vehicle, Jessica would like the car, which Eric is adamant about keeping.

In the absence of common law statutes, Jessica can file a Watts action through the Milwaukee County Courts against Eric. In this example, the judge may rule that the car be refinanced in within 30 days, removing Jessica from the debt potential, or that the car be sold and the remaining debt paid off.

While it's unclear whether Jessica would keep the car, she may receive some financial reimbursement, and at the very least resolve the shared debt.

This is just one example of the Wisconsin's Watts cohabitation law in action. Your situation is likely more complicated, you need a family law attorney who can give you honest, accurate information — and above all — be someone you can trust.

Although it doesn't allow un-wed couples the same degree of legal action as marriage, it can help you bring closure to and financial certainty and allow both parties to move on.


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