The Real Cost of Student Debt: Why New York State Should Allow Common Law Marriages

By Raelynn Leggio

As law students we are experiencing first hand the crushing weight of debt in order to obtain our degrees. In 2012 the average law student had incurred approximately $140,616 of debt. This figure doesn’t include undergraduate debt, and millennials are truly feeling the pressure as tuition for undergraduate and graduate programs only continues to increase.

So what does that have to do with marriage?

Although many millenials face significant debt burdens, the cost of a formal wedding continues to increase. Wedding spending is at an all time high in the U.S., with a 2015 survey from The Knot revealing that couples shell out an average of $32,641 for their big day; that’s about the same price as the average tuition at a private undergraduate university. If you want your big day to be in Manhattan, you could be spending about $82,299. Every reception category from the venue price, to custom guest entertainment, to wine and liquor tastings has increased, while the lists of invitees have gone down to an average of 139 guests.

But that is the reality we face today. The cost of getting married is just added to the mountain of debt that students owe. Student debt has become the new normal and so is the delay of experiencing many life milestones. Marriage, buying a home, and purchasing a car are the top three things that are being delayed by the recent graduate, according to the Consumerist, with 56% of the millennial age bracket stating that their debt has turned them away from investing or starting a family.

A new proposal: common law marriage for New York State.

Currently only eight states continue to have common law marriages, meaning that a couple can become legally married without getting a marriage license or having a formal wedding ceremony. New York recognizes valid common law marriages from other states, but currently to get married in New York a couple needs a marriage license and ceremony. Although factors can vary by state the most basic ones required for common law marriage are: (1) the capacity to marry, (2) a present agreement to be married, (3) cohabitation, and (4) holding out as husband and wife.

Having the capacity to marry typically refers in part to being the proper age to freely consent to marriage. In New York the marriage of a minor under fourteen years is strictly prohibited, while the age range of up to sixteen years requires judicial and parental consent, and ages 16 and 17 require parental consent. Also, mental and intellectual disabilities must not interfere with a party’s cognizant ability to marry and any coercive measures used against a party in the marriage can render it invalid. Couples must present themselves as married to family, friends, and society. Once a common law marriage has been established the marriage exists as any other marriage would, meaning that the dissolution of the partnership can only be rendered legal by having a divorce granted.

Although going to the clerk’s office is relatively inexpensive, with a marriage license costing $35 in New York City and the ceremony itself costing $25, many couples or their families still desire or expect a reception or party afterwards. A more modern trend has surfaced where couples get legally married in courthouse or clerk’s office ceremonies and then have a “wedding” sometime within the next year. These costs are not helping in lessening the financial burdens of students so that they can enjoy their personal lives. The entire time a couple is planning their wedding, or reception, that monthly student loan payment still exists. Using the average student debt acquired by the average law student the student loan calculator states that to make your loan affordable your monthly payment should be $1,468 for ten years with a 4.7% interest rate. That’s slightly higher than the 2013 national average cost of a wedding dress.

Common law marriage in New York State would eliminate any need for these expenses altogether. Recent polls reveal that marriages are on the decline. More people are choosing to live single lives or be in cohabitating relationships, already fulfilling one of the four basic factors of common law marriage. This solution wouldn’t come without challenging legal issues. The first major issue could be determining if common law marriage would apply to couples retroactively. Since the Obergefell decision some states have allowed same sex couples’ common law marriages to apply retroactively to the time when the couples met the common law marriage factors although same-sex marriage had not been permitted in the state at that time. Perhaps New York could follow suit for all couples if it became a state that recognized common law marriages as being valid. There also could exist the battle of a couple’s subjective views as to when they actually became “married.” Because the application of divorce law is the only way to legally end a common law marriage the court system could experience an influx in cases, only adding to its already congested system.

Student loan debt shouldn’t mean delayed gratification for all of the other things we wish to experience in life. The idea of marriage is to celebrate the love two people have for one another and their union. Allowing common law marriages to be another means of celebrating this relationship would alleviate any of the social pressures that millennials may have to finance a large wedding. The focus remains on the couples and their legal benefits that they have gained, including protection through divorce law if needed. The country is experiencing an unprecedented amount of student debt that we have statistically seen affecting marriage and family life for recent graduates, and it should not remain a deterrent to experiencing acceptance as a married couple in the eyes of the law. New York should say “I Do” to common law marriage.