Do We Have a Common Law Marriage?
While several states recognize "common law marriage," Washington
State does not. Instead, Washington State follows the doctrine of Committed
Intimate Relationships (also called meretricious, quasi-marital, or marital-like
Like common law marriage, which is a legal status given to parties living
in a relationship similar to marriage but without a formal ceremony or
marriage certificate, committed intimate relationships also recognize
the importance of long-term, committed, intimate relationships sustained
between two unmarried people.
If a couple is involved in a relationship similar to marriage absent such
legal status, and the relationship comes to an end (or one member of the
relationship passes away), the couple may be left wondering how to deal
with financial issues, property, debts, and even children. Visiting a
Washington State family attorney to
establish a committed intimate relationship can help resolve some of these issues.
What Is a Committed Intimate Relationship?
There is no strict definition of what constitutes a committed intimate
relationship. However, the more marriage-like the relationship, the more
likely a court is to consider it a committed intimate relationship.
To determine whether a committed intimate relationship existed, the court
will consider the following factors:
- Continuous, exclusive co-habitation during the relationship, or living
in the same home as a couple;
- Duration of the relationship, or having been together for a lengthy period of time;
- Pooling of resources and services for joint projects during the relationship,
such as purchasing a home together or maintaining joint accounts;
- Intent of the couple to be involved in a marriage-like relationship, such
as referring to each other as "my wife/husband," having children
together, and/or creating wills together;
- Purpose of the relationship, or enjoying the benefits of marriage such
as companionship, friendship, love, sex, and mutual support.
Not all of these factors are necessary to establish the existence of a
committed intimate relationship. Nor will all relationships that exhibit
all of these traits automatically be deemed committed intimate relationships.
Lastly, whether the parties could otherwise legally marry will not preclude
the court from finding the existence of a committed intimate relationship.
What Happens to Our Property on Conclusion of a Committed Intimate Relationship?
If the court finds a committed intimate relationship existed, it will then
seek to divide property in a fair and equitable manner . This may result
in an equal (50%-50%) division of property, but it also may not. The court
strives to ensure that no one member of the relationship is unjustly economically
What Property Will the Court Divide on Conclusion of a Committed Intimate
At the end of a committed intimate relationship, the court will divide
only community property and debts. All property acquired during the relationship
is presumed to be community property. The exception to this presumption
is property acquired by gift or inheritance, which is separate property
even if acquired during the relationship.
Property acquired before the relationship or following separation is also
presumed to be separate in nature. Such property is not subject to division.
The exception to this rule is where separate property is improved by community
funds (for example, one member of the relationship remodels the kitchen
in his or her partner's home). In such cases, the community may be
entitled to reimbursement.
The division of debts is similar. Debts acquired during the relationship
are presumed to be community in nature, while debts acquired before the
relationship, or following separation, are presumed to be separate in nature.
As a Member of a Committed Intimate Relationship, Can I Receive Spousal
Maintenance (or Alimony)?
No. While in many respects the law treats committed intimate relationships
similarly to marriages, concerning spousal maintenance it does not. Washington
courts are not permitted to award spousal maintenance following the termination
of a committed intimate relationship.
As a Member of a Committed Intimate Relationship, Can I Receive a Share
of My Partner's Government Benefits?
No. Absent special circumstances and accommodations, those involved in
a committed intimate relationship are not considered the "spouse"
or "immediate family" of their partners in a way that entitles
them to a portion of their partners' government benefits (such as
unemployment compensation or social security).
What About a Share of My Partner's Retirement or Pension Account?
Washington law is somewhat unsettled in this area. Generally, on issuance
of a court order and approval by a pension administrator, a member of
a committed intimate relationship is entitled to an equitable share of
his or her partner's private retirement account.
As a Member of a Committed Intimate Relationship, Can I Recoup Attorneys'
Fees Incurred While Enforcing My Rights?
No. Unlike in an action for divorce, in an action enforcing their rights
as members of a committed intimate relationship, such members are not
entitled to seek attorneys' fees. However, fees may be sought in related
matters, such as child support, if applicable to the relationship in question.
Also of note, though the court may not address separate property and debts,
spousal maintenance, or attorney's fees, the parties may still be
entitled to recourse regarding such issues under contract or partnership
theories, or in the event the parties previously signed a Relationship
What Other Issues Should I Be Aware of as a Member of a Committed Intimate
In a committed intimate relationship the court can step in to address issues
involving minor children, such as a parenting plan and
order of child support. In addition to raising issues involving children, a committed intimate
relationship may raise issues including the following:
- Hospital visitation
- Organ donation
- Public assistance
- Judicial process
What Should I Do Next?
If you believe that you may be in a committed intimate relationship, and
you suspect the relationship may be coming to an end, it is highly advisable
you seek the advice and assistance of a qualified family law attorney.
An attorney can further explain the legal criteria for existence of such
a relationship and the rights and responsibilities of each party should
such a relationship exist. An attorney can also help defend the rights
of a party who does not want the court to find existence of such a relationship,
or protect the property rights of a party who believes such a relationship existed.
For more information, contact a
divorce attorney at McKinley Irvin, or read more about the types of assets in a divorce.