It is a common assumption that after living with an intimate partner for a long-time, you automatically end up in “common-law marriage”. You get all the economic and legal benefits of a marriage without the formal certificate and expensive party. Sounds great, right?
Wrong. It’s not so simple. Only a handful of states recognize common-law marriages, and Washington State is not one of them. This NPR article describes common-law marriage, where it is recognized, what the requirements are, some of the rights afforded, and implications of breaking up. Separations can be very tricky with no formal contract in place and each partner bringing their own often contrasting perspective on the relationship.
What if I live with an intimate partner in Washington State?
While there is no common-law marriage in Washington State, unmarried couples living together for a significant period of time may become recognized as “committed intimate relationships”. These relationships were formerly known as “meretricious relationships and are often inaccurately referred to as common-law marriages, as discussed above.
Committed intimate relationships, including both opposite-sex and same-sex couples have property rights similar to those had by married couples in Washington State. It is essential for you to know and understand the implications of living with an intimate partner in the state of Washington so you can be well informed and plan accordingly.
How does the court determine a committed intimate relationship?
There is not a specific set of criteria or a distinct formula used to determine if a relationship constitutes a committed intimate relationship. The courts use a number of different factors when making this determination. Some of these factors (among others) may include:
- How long was the relationship?
- Was cohabitation continuous?
- What was the purpose of the relationship and the intentions of the parties involved?
- Did you hold yourself out as a couple?
- Was this an exclusive relationship?
- Were you registered domestic partners?
- Did you pool resources / Did you buy property together?
- Were you on each other’s bank accounts or credit cards?
- Were you names in each other’s wills?
Each case is evaluated individually, but generally a couple needs to have lived together for a minimum of 2-3 years and presented/held themselves out to be in a committed intimate relationship.
Rights in committed intimate relationships:
When an unmarried cohabitating couple separates, if their relationship constitutes a committed intimate relationship as determined by the courts, their rights and responsibilities are similar to those of married couples. If a couple cannot negotiate and come to an agreement on their own, the court may need to get involved in making determinations.
The most common issues that arise include:
- Determining division of debts and liabilities
- Determining property ownership rights and division of assets
- Determining child custody and child support
Generally, property acquired during the committed intimate relationship is presumed to be owned jointly by both parties. This will be divided in a way that is fair and equitable as determined by the court. The separate property of the parties is not subject to division.
Some of the significant differences between rights in a committed intimate relationships vs. a marriage:
- Couples do not receive the same tax benefits as married couples
- There is no spousal support and no duty of maintenance when a couple separates. The court will get involved with the division of assets and liabilities only. The only exception to this is if a couple has a valid written contract in place that provides for support or maintenance.
- Attorney fees cannot be awarded in these cases. Each individual will have to pay their own fees. Awarding attorney fees is limited to married couples RCW 26.09.140
What can I do?
If you are considering moving in with an intimate partner or currently live with a partner, and were unaware of the Washington law on committed intimate relationships you may be wondering what you can or should do with this information.
*Enter into a Cohabitation Agreement:
- This allows you to make sure that you and your partner dictate the terms of what will happen if your relationship and cohabitation are to end, rather than leaving it in the hands of a court.
- You may do this either at the onset of moving in or even after you already have.
- You can set forth how property will be divided and protect yourself from allowing a partner to gain a share of your property in the event of a break-up.
- Cohabitation agreements protect both parties and serve as insurance in the event that are questions or disagreements at the end of a relationship, when emotions often run high.
Whether you are entering into, are in the midst of, or are facing the end of a committed intimate relationship, we are here to help. Our experienced family law attorneys will help you navigate this complicated and emotional process objectively. We have the expertise, knowledge, and compassion to assist you effectively and collaboratively as you enter the next phase of your life. Please contact us for a consultation.