If you’ve been living in a committed relationship with someone but aren’t married, you may have questions about your legal rights. How are assets and debts divided if the relationship ends or one partner passes away? The term “common law” marriage is often misunderstood and isn’t recognized by every state.
Common Law Marriage Defined in Washington State
Many people believe that if they live in a committed relationship with a person long enough, they will be presumed to be married without having to sign the legal documents or have the ceremony. This is referred to as a common law marriage, and some states agree.
Washington State, however, does not recognize common law marriage, but it does recognize those marriages that were created in the dozen or so states that allow them.
To be married in Washington State, a couple must have a valid marriage ceremony as well as a license. The state also allows couples to register as domestic partners as long as one of the partners is 62 or older.
What Are “Committed Intimate Relationships”?
While Washington State doesn’t recognize common law marriages, the law does address “marriage-like” relationships. A court might decide that you and your partner were in a “committed intimate relationship” (CIR), and use this as a basis for decisions regarding property division and other disputes.
While there is no strict definition of what constitutes a CIR, the courts will look at a number of factors to make this determination. These include:
- How long the relationship lasted
- Whether you lived together continuously
- Whether your relationship was exclusive
- If you intended to act like a married couple
- How each person benefitted from the relationship
- Whether the relationship was committed and stable
- Whether you pooled resources such as buying assets together and having joint accounts
Property & Debt Division in These Situations
If the family law courts in Washington State decide that you were in a CIR, this will impact decisions about property division when you split up. Assets and debts won’t necessarily be split 50/50, but will instead be divided on the basis of what is most fair and equitable.
When making these decisions, the court will look at the nature of the property, the length of your relationship, and the economic situations of each party. Only property and debts acquired during the relationship are subject to this division, since anything you went into the relationship with (assets or debts), will continue to be yours.
Some forms of relief that are available in a divorce action are not available with a CIR, such as the payment of spousal maintenance or access to the other spouse’s pension. If the courts cannot determine that you were in a CIR, assets and debts will generally be divided based on whose name is on the property.
When a partner dies without a will, this is a complicated situation for unmarried couples. Even if the court finds that you were in a CIR, your rights to inherit could be limited. For example, you won’t be able to collect social security benefits. In Washington State, registered domestic partners may be able to inherit without a will.
If you are facing the end of a committed relationship or have recently lost a loved one, you may be unclear about how these events will impact your future.
The experienced family law attorneys at AB Law can review your situation and offer sound legal advice to protect your rights and financial future.