Rights When Ending Intimate Committed Relationships
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 relationships).
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 disadvantaged.
What Property Will the Court Divide on Conclusion of a Committed Intimate Relationship?
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 Agreement.
What Other Issues Should I Be Aware of as a Member of a Committed Intimate Relationship?
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.
- Unmarried Couples