Does Washington State Recognize Common Law Marriage?

Does Washington State Recognize Common Law Marriage?

Washington state does not acknowledge common law marriage. Common law marriage in states other than Washington generally refers to relationships where couples receive marriage benefits without being married under the law. Washington state does, however, have a distinct classification known as “committed intimate relationship” (CIR), which offers specific safeguards to cohabiting couples who aren’t legally wed. 

If you and your partner reside in Washington state and are unmarried, you each might qualify for the legal protections availed to you by law by classifying your relationship as a committed intimate relationship. Here is what you need to know about committed intimate relationships in Washington state.

Committed Intimate Relationship in Washington State

Although Washington state does not acknowledge common law marriages, courts still recognize that some unmarried couples are in what it refers to today as a “committed intimate relationship,” previously termed a “meretricious relationship.” If a court determines a CIR exists, the couple has certain rights, some of which are akin to those of married couples. To ascertain if a specific relationship qualifies as a committed intimate relationship, Washington state courts will examine various criteria, including:

  • The duration and fidelity of the relationship (which typically must span at least two years).
  • Whether a couple has consistently lived together.
  • The extent to which the individuals demonstrated themselves to others as a devoted couple throughout their relationship.
  • Their observation of financial practices like combining their finances, including owning joint property.
  • The existence of joint banking accounts, credit cards, and similar financial tools.
  • The couple’s inclusion of each other in their wills or other related legal documents.

Cohabitation vs. Marriage

Aspects of cohabitation and marriage overlap, such as jointly caring for children, buying property with combined funds or income, and jointly assuming debt. However, there are some notable differences between cohabitation and marriage.

In cohabitation, there is no legal obligation to support a partner financially. Cohabitants also do not receive the same tax advantages as married couples. Furthermore, spousal support is not available post-cohabitation unless a specific cohabitation agreement specifically allows it. Finally, in cases for CIRs, attorney fees are not allowed.

When considering marriage versus cohabitation, it is critical to your decision-making to remember that marriage is a legal contract where many rights are legally designated. Legal rights under marriage include property distribution, estate planning, and other duties. For instance, when ending a marriage, all property types are subject to division. However, in asset division cases for committed intimate relationships, a court will only consider property acquired during the relationship using shared resources. To create additional protections that are not afforded under a CIR, a cohabitation agreement can be helpful. More about those below.

Domestic Partnerships

Many Washington state residents, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, are in deep, committed relationships without being legally married. The Washington state legislature acknowledges the importance of providing rights to such couples and allows registered domestic partnerships if one member of the couple is 62 years or older. The state’s goal is to support family bonds between two adults and provide certain protections to them without changing the traditional concept of marriage and the legal rights marriage affords.  

Registration grants partners in CIRs benefits at the state level that their married counterparts receive. This is an important legal construct since some pension and social security rules, for example, make marriage less appealing. As a solution, if one partner is at least 62, the typical age for retirement and accessing benefits, they can register as a domestic partnership, which will offer them some rights akin to their married counterparts while preserving others that might be forfeited under marriage.

Since 1994, Seattle has provided long-term committed couples who are unmarried the opportunity to formalize their relationships by registering a domestic partnership at the Seattle City Clerk’s Office. Registration for a domestic partnership is optional and does not offer any new or different legal rights, responsibilities, or financial obligations to the registered individuals.

Cohabitation Agreements for Committed Intimate Relationships

Whether you fall under the category of a CIR or not, when choosing to stay unmarried, it is wise to secure your individual rights. An effective way to do so is to create a cohabitation agreement that sets out the financial details of your partnership, including the stake each partner has in the other’s earnings and possessions and the method for how assets and liabilities would be divided if the relationship ends.  

A cohabitation agreement is a contract that details the financial expectations and arrangements of unmarried partners who live together. While the specifics can differ from one couple to the next, common elements of cohabitation agreements often include handling property and earnings acquired during the relationship, managing expenses, dividing assets upon separation or death, and resolving disputes. For cohabitating parents, the agreement will contain provisions related to parenting and support, with courts prioritizing the children’s best interests.

Such agreements allow unmarried couples to establish rights typically associated with marriage. To ensure a cohabitation is legally binding, it generally needs to be in writing and might be subject to additional stipulations, depending on the nature of the assets involved. Relying on verbal agreements can be tricky; disagreements on what was verbally agreed upon can arise after a relationship ends.

Unlike unmarried couples, married partners can form implied agreements inferred by the court from their actions during cohabitation. Without such an agreement, courts will aim for an equitable asset distribution. Given the complexities in proving implied or verbal cohabitation terms, it is recommended for unmarried couples to draft an explicit written agreement. While engaging an attorney can be costly, it is often more cost-effective than paying for the potential disputes and legal challenges associated with splitting assets at the end of a relationship. 

Additionally, if one partner passes away during a CIR, a court will not take legal action due to a key party being absent. The court would instead look to any estate planning the couple had. 

Most jurisdictions, including Washington state, uphold cohabitation agreements. These agreements, like other contracts, need to adhere to standard contractual requirements to be legally recognized. Additionally, cohabitation agreements are generally more flexible and subject to less scrutiny than prenuptial or postnuptial agreements.

Creating a Legally Binding Cohabitation Agreement

Having a cohabitation agreement in place can provide clarity should disagreements arise in the future, potentially saving both parties from excessive legal fees and unnecessary stress. To create a cohabitation agreement that will stand in a court of law, each partner should retain legal representation individually. 

With separate attorneys, there will be a higher likelihood that the agreement will reflect each partner’s rights and will be deemed by a court fair and, therefore, enforceable. It is important to note that a single attorney cannot represent both individuals due to potential conflicts of interest. Thus, both partners should secure their own attorney, or if only one attorney is involved, that attorney will exclusively represent one party’s interests.

Separation Following a Committed Intimate Relationship

The end of a relationship can be upsetting to think about. That is why you should consider utilizing a cohabitation agreement to outline the terms of your arrangement, thereby protecting your interests and potentially preventing a messy and expensive court case. The most opportune time to create a cohabitation agreement is at the outset of your relationship, i.e., when you decide to move in together or when you see your relationship becoming long-term. 

If a couple is recognized as being in a committed intimate relationship and they part ways without having a cohabitation agreement in place, a Washington state court will step in to make decisions if the couple cannot at the time of separation and form an agreement on the following issues. Those issues include:

Property: The court will decide on property rights and each party’s interests in them based on a fair and balanced division of assets. Any property gained during the relationship will be seen as jointly owned, similar to marital property. However, assets and debts that were individually acquired and maintained will not be split.

Support: Unlike in marital separations, Washington courts will not grant spousal support to a partner at the end of a CIR. 

Children: Washington state courts will make decisions about child custody, child support, and visitation rights.

In situations where there is no will, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that a surviving CIR partner does not have the inheritance rights of a spouse. Therefore, it is beneficial for partners in a committed intimate relationship to create a comprehensive estate plan to address their wishes should one partner die or become incapacitated.

Find a Seattle family lawyer experienced in committed intimate relationships and cohabitation agreements.

Being part of a committed intimate relationship can be a wonderful and gratifying experience for those involved. However, given that the rights available to unmarried couples can deviate from those granted by marriage, it is crucial to seek skilled counsel to apprise you of the rights and responsibilities you have and how to protect those you don’t.

At Elise Buie Family Law, our talented team of Washington state family law and estate planning attorneys understand the importance of creating safeguards for those involved in committed intimate relationships and have vast experience creating cohabitation agreements that fit the individual needs of our clients. If you would like to speak with a member of our Washington family law and estate planning team, contact our Seattle office today.

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