California Marriage Law

by Ed Sherman, Family Law Attorney

Marriage has been with us for thousands of years, but domestic partnerships were not created by California law until 2000, primarily for same-sex couples who cannot marry, and as an after-thought, for retirement-age couples who don't want to compromise Social Security and other benefits. As of January 1, 2005, registered domestic partners acquired almost all the rights, protections, benefits, responsibilities, obligations and duties that married people derive from California law.

Most prospective spouses and domestic partners are not aware that their union is, at its core, a contract. Indeed, California law defines marriage as a "civil contract." The same applies to domestic partnership. When you enter into marriage or domestic partnership, whether you know it or not, you are agreeing to a large set of rights and duties; but few people read the terms because no one hands them to you in writing.

It's hard to imagine any other legal arena where contracting parties are so much in the dark. Where else are such imposing responsibilities undertaken by oral agreement? There are more rights and bargaining power in a contract made with a door-to-door salesperson. It would be interesting to see how many couples would get hitched if beforehand they were required to read the "contract" and consider the rights and responsibilities they would be agreeing to. Most would probably require some thought, negotiation and planning before saying "I do" if they knew what they were getting into.

Some of the issues that are defined by California marriage law are:
Details on all these topics are obviously too lengthy to go into here, but I provide information on how California marriage law handles all these issues in my book, Legal Essentials for California Couples. Once you understand what the law says, if you don't agree and would prefer to handle some of the issues differently, I show you how to create your own legally binding Couples Contract so you can choose how to do things instead of automatically defaulting to California law.

Copyright 2007 Ed Sherman


Ed Sherman is a family law attorney, award-winning author, and founder of Nolo Press. He started the self-help law movement in 1971 when he published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, and founded the paralegal industry in 1973. In Legal Essentials for California Couples, Ed applies what he has learned from years of experience to help couples protect and preserve their relationship. You can order his books from or by calling (800) 464-5502.