Many couples live together for a long time, accumulate property, and even have children, all without getting married. While this isn’t all that unusual, there are a number of misconceptions revolving around these situations and what it means when the couple separates. If you are unmarried but separating from a long-term partner, an experienced family law attorney can help you understand your rights. 

What is Common Law Marriage?

This is an old concept whereby a couple can become “married” simply by living together long-term and holding themselves out as a married couple. This can include doing things such as telling people they are married, holding property as a married couple, and having children. Although the couple is not legally married, the couple would be treated the same as any other married couple under common law marriage doctrine

Is There Common Law Marriage in Washington State?

A few states do recognize some form of common law marriage, but Washington is not one of them.

However, in Washington State, we do have a doctrine that is somewhat similar to common law marriage called “Committed Intimate Relationship” (CIR), whereby a couple may be treated like a married couple for some purposes but not for others.

What is a Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR)?

Under the CIR doctrine, if a couple has lived in a stable long-term marriage-like relationship, they may acquire property rights similar to a married couple.

Unfortunately, there is no exact definition of what constitutes a CIR. Rather, in each case, it is up to the court to weigh various factors to decide whether a CIR existed. These factors include:

  • The length, continuity, and exclusivity of the relationship
  • Pooling of resources (like joint accounts or debts)
  • Acting as if you are married or holding yourself out as a couple
  • Long-term planning together
  • Knowing that you are in fact not married
  • Not being married to anyone else during the relationship

At a minimum, a couple needs to have lived together for at least two to three years while holding themselves out to be in a committed intimate relationship. An experienced family law attorney will be able to claim that you are in a CIR. 

The Purpose Behind Committed Intimate Relationships

Couples in a CIR do not receive any special tax benefits similar to married couples or really any other legal status. Ultimately, the purpose of a CIR is to determine certain rights and responsibilities when the couple decides to separate. 

Division of property is one of the primary reasons that a court will determine whether there was a CIR. If the court finds that a CIR existed, then property and debt will generally be divided similar to a marriage in the case of divorce. In other words, property and debt acquired during the committed intimate relationship are usually treated as community, i.e. belonging to both parties jointly (though certain kinds of property may remain as separate property).

Just as for a married couple, this does not mean it is divided 50/50, but a court will attempt to divide debts and assets equitably. The court can again look at various factors including the needs of both parties and the length of the relationship in deciding what a fair division should be.

This is one of the reasons why you should consider at least talking to a lawyer. They will know what you can reasonably expect in terms of an outcome and serve as your advocate in protecting your interests. Otherwise, your financial future could be left entirely in the hands of the court and the partner you are separating from. 

What is the Difference between a Committed Intimate Relationship and Common Law Marriage?

A Committed Intimate Relationship is used primarily for dividing assets. However, the existence of a CIR does not give the court authority to order spousal support (alimony) as in a divorce.

A CIR also does not convey any special status as to parenting rights or child support. Issues related to children rely on parentage status, not on marital status. This means that you will still have to come to address issues such as custody and child support. Similar to your typical divorce, however, the court will ultimately determine what is fair and in the best interests of the child in terms of both custody and support. 

Unmarried but Separating?

If you have been in a long-term relationship and are now separating from your partner, you should consider seeking legal guidance if any of the following situations apply to you: 

  • You own or rent a home together
  • You have joint  bank accounts
  • You have accumulated significant assets during the course of your relationship
  • You have children together

The first thing your lawyer will do is explain what you can expect going forward and help you prioritize those things that are most important for you. From there, they can work with you and your partner to hopefully negotiate a separation agreement that would most likely be approved by the court. This removes a great deal of stress and anxiety from the separation while protecting your rights and the rights of your children. 

Contact Seattle Divorce Services Today if You Are Unmarried and Separating

At Seattle Divorce Services, we have deep experience in helping those who are in non-traditional relationships. Creative and forward-thinking, we can help you build a brighter future for yourself and your children. To learn more about how we can help, contact us today by calling 206-784-3049.