How to Divorce if You are Unsure You are Legally Married...and What to do if You're Not
It should go without saying that a person must be legally married in order to obtain a divorce. If you are facing the prospect of separating from your spouse, but are unsure of the legal status of your marriage, you must determine whether your marriage was properly registered according the law of the state or country in which your marriage ceremony was performed.
Review County Records
In Washington State
If you were married in the State of Washington, your marriage certificate must have been recorded with the auditor/recorder of the county in which your ceremony occurred within 30 days of the wedding. You can determine whether this occurred for your own marriage by reviewing the records of the appropriate county auditor.
This may require a visit to the county auditor's office, or you may be able to locate your wedding certificate on the auditor's online records website (if offered in that county). Note, however, that most county auditors only offer records that were after recorded after a certain date for online viewing. If your marriage occurred many decades ago, it may not be available online.
Other States or Countries
If you were married in another state, or abroad, you will need to determine what the requirements are for registering or recording a marriage certificate in that jurisdiction, and then contact the relevant agency to see if those requirements were followed and obtain a copy of your marriage certificate.
If You're Married...
If your marriage was legally registered, you may proceed to file for dissolution of your marriage under Washington's marital dissolution statute.
If You're Not Married...
If your marriage was not legally recorded, you cannot seek relief under the marital dissolution statute (because, as far as the state is concerned, you were never married), but there are still legal remedies available to you under Washington law.
Washington courts will divide property, allocate debts, order child support, and make orders concerning parenting of children in cases where the parties were never legally married, under the same or similar laws as those applied to married couples.
Division of Property and Debt
With respect to property and debt, if you were not legally married to your partner, you may file a petition in which you ask the court to establish that you and your ex were in a "committed intimate relationship" (formerly referred to as a "meretricious relationship"). "Committed intimate relationship" is a legal term which is applied to couples who resided together in a marriage-like relationship.
There is no strict formula to determine whether such a relationship existed. Instead, the court will look at certain factors, such as participation in a wedding ceremony, acquisition of joint property or debts, and continuous cohabitation, to determine whether the doctrine applies to a given couple. Once the court determines that a relationship was indeed a "committed intimate" one, the court will divide the assets and debts acquired during the relationship in a manner similar to a court in a divorce case.
There are two key differences between the relief available in a martial dissolution and a committed intimate relationship dissolution. First, the court will not award spousal support to either party. Secondly, the court will not make an award of attorney's fees based on a party's need and the other party's ability to pay. Washington courts have long held that these two types of relief are only appropriate when parties were legally married.
Finally, with respect to any children born during a relationship, you may also seek child support and a parenting plan through a parentage action which may be brought at the same time as a committed intimate relationship dissolution. The law regarding determination of child support and an appropriate parenting plan are the same for married and unmarried parents.
If you are unsure about the legal status of your marriage, or your rights in the event that your marriage was not properly recorded, consultation with an experienced family law attorney is invaluable to protecting your legal rights.