13 Jan Understanding Property Rights for Unmarried Couples
Washington state provides a special legal status to devoted couples who form a household together: it is called a committed intimate relationship (CIR). Partners who have been together for several years continuously and can show their intent to form a marriage-like relationship may receive some, but not all, of the rights of married couples in the state.
The law will regard the property they acquire during the relationship as community property. And if the couple splits up, courts will divide the property in a “just and equitable” way. Couples who have taken on debt jointly will be jointly responsible for it. And couples with children will pursue custody and child support in the same way as married couples in a divorce. However, couples in a CIR are not entitled to “spousal support” unless they have been together for at least seven years and have comingled their finances according to law. Clearly, there is a lot to know about how the law treats individuals who are in committed but unmarried relationships. Understanding your property rights as an unmarried couple can make the difference in dividing assets so that you know what is legally yours.
What Happens if One Partner Dies?
Inheritance between unmarried partners in a CIF is another matter. Understanding property rights for unmarried couples involves recognizing that those rights may not exist without specific legal documents establishing them.
When a spouse in a legally established marriage dies, certain rights and benefits pass to the surviving spouse. These may include the right to collect Social Security payments as a surviving spouse and rights to assets that the married couple has held jointly, such as houses, bank accounts, and investments. There is no such presumption for unmarried couples.
If one partner dies, and there is no plan for that person’s home or any other property you share with them, then the home may be given to their closest family member. This holds true even if you live and have paid for expenses there.
It is necessary to ask an attorney about your property rights and what estate planning documents you need to have prepared.
Partners in a CIR can designate their partner as their heir in a will and make them a beneficiary in a trust and for life insurance. It is also important to create powers of attorney assigning the right to make decisions about property and health care in the event of incapacity.
Each partner should obtain separate legal counsel to create estate planning documents, to avoid conflicts of interest, and to ensure that their individual rights and desires are fully represented. People colloquially refer to lawyers who specialize in preparing estate documents for unmarried couples as common law marriage attorneys, even though Washington does not recognize common law marriages.
The important thing is to hire a lawyer with experience in estates and trusts for couples in committed intimate relationships. Such an individual can advise you on all the matters you should cover if you want to ensure your life partner has the right to make medical decisions for you if you cannot make them for yourself. The same is true for managing your property and investments, and it is especially important to ensure your will and trust specify your partner as your heir and beneficiary.
If you are a couple in a committed intimate relationship, have a family law attorney guide you so that you know your options for any property you may have an interest in.
Inheritances from a person other than a spouse or partner are not community property, even for married couples, when both are still living. However, inherited property may be commingled or jointly used with funds from the marriage to the point where you cannot distinguish what is separate and what is community. In such a case, it is likely to lose its designation as separate property. This gives the other spouse an interest in the property and any other property obtained solely from the inheritance. For example, this can happen when you deposit cash in a joint account or move to an inherited home and make significant improvements with your partner using community funds. The law will treat it as community property unless you can show that the property was inherited or obtained prior to the marriage. Separate property can comingle with community property to the point where the property is considered community. It is essential to speak with an attorney and obtain the necessary documentation to show what you had before the marriage and what only you received as a gifted during the marriage.
If you need help with property division for unmarried couples in a committed intimate relationship, you should contact the experienced attorneys at LaCoste Family Law.