ROCK HILL, S.C. — After the end of a relationship that lasted almost 40 years, Debra Parks, 62, sued to have her rights recognized by the court. According to Family Court Judge Thomas White, Parks had a common law marriage with her partner long before same-sex marriage was nationally legalized.

White’s ruling included the stipulation that the state must retroactively apply the landmark ruling that legalized gay marriage. This means that same-sex couples, whether married by license or common law, have the same rights as heterosexual couples; the precedent is set that same-sex couples have rights to alimony and division of property, among others.

In Parks’ case, experts have said that the ruling is right and ensures fair protections by law, but may be challenged because it is the first of its kind. University of South Carolina family law professor Marcia Zug told The Herald her take.

“The judge wants to be on the right side of history,” Zug said. “This is definitely new…and not only is it a new decision, it is the right decision.”

“Once the courts recognized same-sex marriage, everything else from the marriage follows including rights of the parties,” Miller Shealy, a law professor in Charleston, told The Herald. “That includes marital property, alimony, divorce, all of it…It is clear all rights and duties of marriage now apply to same-sex couples.”

Common law marriage is the recognition of a relationship without a marriage license but with other characteristics of marriage, like cohabitation and joint property. Eight states recognize common law marriage, including South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, District of Columbia and others.

Together since 1977, Parks and her partner split up last year. Parks, now disabled, brought the lawsuit to seek spousal support and division of property. Parks’ partner, court documents show, did not consider the relationship marital. The ruling recognizing the couple’s common law marriage will be followed by a ruling regarding support and property.

Over the course of 40 years, the couple bought a house and other property, lived together, had joint bank accounts and named one another on their taxes.

“We were married,” Parks said. “I want people in my situation to know they do have rights, and can get help.”

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