“The Wife” – Common Law Marriage

After Jerry’s dry cleaner Marty offers him a 25% discount for finding and returning a locket that belonged to his deceased wife, Jerry’s girlfriend Meryl claims to be his wife so she can receive the discount too. Are Jerry and Meryl now married by common law?

Although it can vary by state, there are typically 4 elements that must be fulfilled for a common law marriage to take effect.

  1. Capacity to be married
  2. Cohabitation by the parties
  3. Holding out or purporting to be husband and wife
  4. An agreement by the parties to be married

Unlike the common perception of what constitutes a common law marriage, there is no time based minimum or certain number of “I love yous” that must be said for a couple to be considered married. All that matters is that these 4 elements have been met. 

In order to fulfill the requirement of capacity to be married, Jerry and Meryl would both have to meet the statutory requirements New York dictates for marriage. This means that both must be over 18 years old, and not closely related by blood. Jerry and Meryl each meet these requirements. One down, three to go.

Jerry and Meryl are certainly cohabiting. They argue over sleeping arrangements in bed, with Jerry being upset that he has to sleep with “one cheek off the bed!” Later, Meryl and Jerry argue over the location of the can opener, with Meryl having a very strong opinion on the location of the kitchen utensil.

They also go to bed together. Clearly, Meryl is spending a tremendous amount of time at Jerry’s apartment, and even has some autonomy over it. Additionally, although we don’t see Jerry delivering any open mouth kisses to Meryl, it’s safe to assume they are consummating their relationship as well. Since conjugation is a requirement of this cohabitation element,  we can now say that we’ve got two of the four elements.

There is some conflicting evidence as to whether the happy couple is holding themselves out as a married couple, i.e. that they are presenting themselves to the world as being married. Throughout the episode, Jerry offers up many statements that indicate he and Meryl are truly married. He addresses her as his wife at the dry cleaners, at Monk’s, to Kramer, and even to Uncle Leo.

He calls her “Meryl Seinfeld” and, despite some reservations, even allows Meryl to call him her “adoring husband” in front of the waitress at Monk’s. Along with their verbal demonstrations, Meryl also indicates through her actions that she intends to truly be married to Jerry. She utilizes the dry cleaning discount, demonstrating that she is purporting herself to be Jerry’s wife.

But Jerry does have some wavering moments about the validity of the marriage. He confesses to his parents that he’s just pretending to be married in order to get a dry cleaning discount. Nevertheless, even when Jerry wants to give his discount to damsel-in-distress Paula, he still makes it seem like he is married to Meryl. When Paula cries “what about her,” Jerry doesn’t deny his marriage, he merely says “to hell with her” as if he’s cheating on Meryl, rather than admitting that his marriage is not real.

Based on all the facts, it seems reasonable that a judge or jury could actually conclude that Jerry and Meryl are purporting themselves to married. With three of the four elements now fulfilled, is it really possible that our favorite New York City bachelor is actually a married man?

The answer is no. Jerry and Meryl never had an agreement to be married, nor did either of them ever truly intend to be married. They may have intended to pretend to be married, but that is quite different from intending to be actually married. Alas, the fourth requirement is not met. 

Regardless, New York State stopped allowing for common law marriages in 1933. So, despite Meryl’s 19th century sounding name, the two lovebirds could not be married without going through the normal romantic state licensing process

Had Jerry and Meryl actually been married by common law, they would still have to file for divorce like every other married couple. Jerry can not simply end the divorce by admitting he’s not prepared for the responsibilities of a pretend marriage. This could have had dramatic consequences for the rest of the series. If Jerry and Meryl are still married, then when he becomes engaged to fellow cereal lover Jeannie Steinman Jerry would be treading dangerously close to bigamy! But that is a discussion for another time. 

Either way, in states where common law marriage is still legal (New Hampshire, Iowa, or Kansas and a few others), Jerry could have found himself in hot syrup with his and Meryl’s behavior. Their fake marriage dry cleaning scheme could have resulted in a dry cleaning discount for life. If so, Kramer wouldn’t be the only damn fool of “The Wife.” 

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