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Bill would end New Hampshire’s limited recognition of common-law marriages

A lawmaker is trying to get rid of New Hampshire’s limited, posthumous recognition of common-law marriages.

“If the couple wanted marriage benefits, they should have married while they were both alive and taken responsibility for each other,” said Rep. David Bickford, a Republican from New Durham, during a hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee.

Under state law, two people can be considered married if “cohabiting and acknowledging each other as husband and wife, and generally reputed to be such, for the period of three years, and until the decease of one of them.”

So, while such a common-law marriage isn’t recognized by the state while both partners are alive, it can be considered a valid form of marriage when it comes to estate law and survivor benefits.

“This is akin to someone like myself claiming that I’m a veteran, and I’m not a veteran, and then expecting, after three years, that I’ll get pension benefits,” Bickford said. “I see this as very wrong.”

Bickford has filed a bill to repeal the state statutes that recognize common-law marriages. He introduced a similar bill in 2005, but it was killed by the House on a 270-81 vote that February.

Only nine states and the District of Columbia fully recognize common-law marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Hampshire’s law dates to 1842, according to Bickford.

Bickford said he doesn’t have a moral objection to couples living together.

“I have cohabited for 25 years. I’ve never been married and I don’t intend to ever be married,” Bickford said. “I also don’t want somebody going after my estate after I’m dead.”

When it comes to the benefits that come with marriage, he said, “I think we need to draw a line in the sand. You’re either married or you’re not married.”

Plus, Bickford said, the language in the statute only recognizes opposite-sex couples, not same-sex marriages, and “at the very least, this bill should be amended to include all possible cohabitations that could be married.”

Some members of the Judiciary Committee seemed skeptical yesterday. Rep. Peter Sullivan, a Manchester Democrat, said the bill could create problems for refugees who settle in New Hampshire, but whose marriage records may be long gone in their war-torn homeland.

“Let’s say a married couple from the Sudan or from Bosnia emigrates to New Hampshire,” Sullivan said. “They don’t have a marriage license. They don’t have any paper trail that shows that they are, in fact, married. But they live together in New Hampshire for 20 years, they raise a family, they acknowledge each other as husband and wife. How do we treat them?”

And Rep. George Lambert, a Litchfield Republican who’s not on the committee, objected to Bickford’s bill. He said his mother-in-law has lived with a man for many years, and they share bank accounts and the like, but decided not to get formally married due to the “distasteful” experience of her previous divorce.

“I know people who have chosen not to get married specifically because of this, and I would oppose repealing this statute,” Lambert said. “There are some people who cohabit, live together and really behave in a way that is representative of what the traditional establishment would see as marriage, who chose not to actually get married for political or conscientious reasons.”

The committee didn’t take a vote yesterday on Bickford’s bill, but will send a recommendation to the full House at a later date.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

Legacy Comments1

What's the big deal, we as a society forgot what a marriage is when we said anything goes. Of course it shouldn't even be debated about it being a moral issue since we lost our moral compass a long time ago. Remember when marriage didn't have asterisk attached to it. Yes so much infinite wisdom oozing from society with only a creation of an over abundance of confusion. You think it's only by chance we are failing so badly?

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