22 Mar The Legal Rights of Unmarried Couples Living Together
Washington State does not recognize common-law marriages. However, cohabitating couples in Washington have another option: proving they are in a “committed intimate relationship” (CIR). The legal rights of unmarried couples living together in a CIR are similar, but not identical, to the rights of legally married couples. When a CIR breaks up, the former partners have rights to a division of property but not to spousal support or alimony.
Demonstrating a Committed Intimate Relationship
Washington courts generally consider four factors to determine that a CIR exists. These include:
- Duration: How long the couple has been together. A court is more likely to recognize a couple that has been together for at least three years as being in a CIR.
- Continuity: Partners in CIRs demonstrate commitment to each other by remaining in the relationship continuously, without intermittent breakups.
- Intent or purpose: Why does the couple live together? Is it simply for convenience or sexual satisfaction? Steps such as raising children or buying a house together indicate an intention to create a marriage-like relationship. Written documents that recognize the relationship, such as wills or cohabitation agreements, also support the case that a CIR exists.
- Finances: If the partners maintain a joint bank account or combine resources for mutual support, the court is more likely to recognize a CIR.
Getting Together and Breaking Up
When couples enter a CIR, they should consider appointing powers of attorney and creating a cohabitation agreement, advance directives, and wills, just as married couples do. These can grant each individual the rights to make decisions for the other in case of incapacity. These rights would not exist if one partner died without a will or directive granting them to the other. The same is true for rights to inherit property.
If the partners in a CIR decide to terminate the relationship, each partner should seek representation from what, in another state, might be called a common-law marriage attorney. In Washington, look for a family lawyer with a record of success in convincing courts to recognize CIRs and divisions of property.
What Is at Stake
CIRs exist to ensure that if an unmarried relationship breaks up, one partner is not unfairly enriched. When a CIR breaks up, the court will divide property based on the same “just and equitable” standard used for legally married, divorcing couples. The court will regard any property acquired during the relationship as community property. Exceptions are inheritances, gifts, and any property acquired before the relationship that was deliberately kept separate. Partners in a CIR will also still be responsible for joint debts.
For families, the courts will prioritize the best interest of the child (or children) in approving or issuing child custody and support arrangements. But Washington courts will not award alimony or spousal support when a CIR dissolves.
There is a three-year statute of limitations on filing a claim to enforce rights from a Washington CIR. If your relationship has ended and you have concerns that your partner will not treat you fairly, contact LaCoste Family Law today. We can advise you on the legal rights of unmarried couples living together.