In community property states such as Washington, marital assets are divided 50/50 when a marriage ends (barring clauses in any existing prenuptial agreement). But what happens in a situation where a couple is not married but has had a long history of living together?
While Washington does not recognize common law marriage, couples may be considered to be in a “committed intimate relationship” (CIR) if certain criteria are satisfied. Under state case law, a CIR is defined as a “stable, marital-like relationship where parties cohabit with knowledge that lawful marriage between them does not exist.” When a CIR ends and one party seeks to recover money or property from the other, a court presumes that assets and debts acquired during the CIR are owned by both parties and will attempt to divide them fairly. In other words, a CIR creates enforceable property rights similar to those held by married couples.
Unlike a marriage or a state registered domestic partnership, a CIR is not created by an official act or filing of documents. Rather, it is implied from the circumstances of each particular relationship. A court will look at such relevant factors as:
- whether there was continuous cohabitation
- the duration and exclusivity of the relationship
- whether the parties conducted themselves as a couple
- the purpose of the relationship
- whether money and resources were pooled
- whether either party named the other in a will or other document conveying property interests
If, upon the couple’s separation, the court determines that a CIR existed, it will attempt to make a “just and equitable” distribution of the assets and debts acquired during the time the couple cohabited.
The best way to avoid leaving these crucial decisions to the court is to enter into a cohabitation agreement. It allows you to specify which property is separately owned, who is responsible for particular debts, how jointly owned assets are to be split and how any disputes that arise should be resolved. Couples in a CIR have no right of survivorship if one of them dies, but a cohabitation agreement can be used to keep specified assets from passing to the decedent’s heirs.
If you are cohabiting in an intimate relationship and are interested in establishing a plan to protect your property interests, the experienced family law attorneys at Bottimore & Associates, P.L.L.C. in Tacoma can help. To learn more or to schedule a consultation, call us at 253-272-5653 or contact us online today.