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NMI high court: Legislature has abolished common law marriage

(Press Release) — On Dec. 7, 2017, the CNMI Supreme Court issued its decision in Santos v. Commonwealth, 2017 MP 12. After a thorough examination of CNMI law governing marriages, the high court concluded that the Legislature has abolished common law marriage in the Northern Marianas.

Appellant Joaquina R. Santos, who lived together with Cristin C. Duenas as “husband and wife” for over 30 years, sued the government because she was discriminated on the basis of her class as a “common law” wife. She claimed she was entitled to Duenas’ retirement benefits, but the government denied her because she was not “legally” married. The Superior Court dismissed her complaint, and she appealed.

At common law, a marriage is a contract which may be created by two people who agree to marry and live together as husband and wife. Courts will generally recognize this type of marriage unless the legislature clearly intended to abolish it.

The CNMI Supreme Court examined the laws governing marriage in the commonwealth and found that there are two ways in which a couple may lawfully marry. First, a couple may apply for a license to marry with the Office of the Governor or the mayor, followed by a ceremony. Second, they may marry in accordance with recognized customs. Because statutes provide specific and exclusive ways to enter into marriages, the CNMI Supreme Court concluded that the Legislature clearly intended to abolish common law marriage.

The high court’s full opinion is available at