Washington state law is clear: The Evergreen State does not recognize “common law marriage.” That is to say that no matter how long a couple lives together in a committed relationship, that relationship can never ripen into actual marriage. But Washington state courts do recognize something that, for some, seems indistinguishable from marriage – the “committed intimate relationship” (CIR). Once a court determines that a CIR exists, the persons within the relationship have property rights quite similar to those that are “enjoyed” by actual spouses.
If, therefore, you and another person have decided to live together, you should be aware of some of the legal implications. As outlined below, you may also want to consider a cohabitation agreement that sets out your rights and expectations.
Committed Intimate Relationship: What Factors are Important?
Unfortunately, when judging whether a particular relationship is a CIR, there are no hard and fast rules. The court is somewhat aiming at a moving target. Some of the factors that courts consider include the following:
- The length of time the relationship was ongoing.
- Did the couple continuously cohabit?
- Did the couple “hold themselves” out as a couple?
- Did the couple pool resources?
- Was the relationship exclusive?
- Did the couple register as domestic partners?
- What was the relationship’s purpose? What intentions did the couple have in the relationship’s beginning?
- Vitally important: Was the relationship intimate?
With regard to this last factor or issue, if a couple shares a residence for economic reasons, for example, as housemates, but do not have an actual intimate relationship, the court will not find that a CIR exists. Another important matter: CIR rules apply both to opposite sex and same sex relationships. While each relationship is considered on its own, courts normally require two to three years of cohabitation in an intimate relationship before they will find the existence of a CIR.
When a CIR Ends, Property Division is Quite Similar to Distribution in Connection With a Divorce
Generally speaking, when a CIR ends, Washington courts divide or distribute assets and liabilities in a manner quite similar to what would occur if the couple had married. Ordinarily, any property acquired by the couple during the CIR is considered owned equally by both partners. It usually makes little difference in whose name the asset is titled. As is the case when the court distributes property during a divorce proceeding – the court tries to divide property and debts as equitably as possible.
Child Custody and Child Support are Separate Issues
In Washington, parents have a responsibility to provide and care for their children, regardless of their marital status. The court is primarily interested in the welfare of the child or children, not in the desires or interests of the parents. Custody and support issues proceed separately.
In spite of similarities, Washington state law treats members of a CIR quite differently with regard to a number of important issues. For example:
- With a CIR, there is no provision for spousal support following the “separation,” nor does either partner have a duty of maintenance.
- A couple in a CIR does not have the same tax advantages that are enjoyed by a married couple.
- Except for the division of property noted above, state courts have no interest in other issues between the separating persons. The only exception is where the couple have signed a valid written agreement that provides for such matters as maintenance and support, or which waives property rights.
Cohabitation Agreements Can Lessen the Uncertainty
Where Washington residents decide to live together in a committed relationship, it usually makes sense to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement that clearly sets forth each of the couple’s expectations, his or her rights upon the dissolution of the relationship, and what sorts of maintenance, if any, will be provided to the parties, should they split. Many couples prefer to make their own decisions as to these personal issues, instead of having to negotiate them after the fact or have a court decide for them.
Skilled, Experienced Legal Counsel Can Help With Cohabitation Agreements
Are you living with another person in a committed intimate relationship? Are you contemplating such a relationship? Have you considered the practical, economic, and property interests that such a relationship entails? Blado Kiger Bolan, P.S. has over 30 years of combined experience in providing quality legal services to individuals throughout the Pacific Northwest. We can help you think through all of the issues at hand, and can offer the simplest, most effective solution for you. Because our firm has extensive experience in litigation, we can help you design an agreement that avoids the pitfalls and expense of a court battle. Contact us on the web, or call our office at 253-272-2997.