Perhaps you lived together with your partner for years, but you never took the leap to tie the knot. You were both committed—perhaps even more so than the majority of couples you know. But there was never an expensive ring, a formal ceremony, or a license application.

Suddenly, an unexpected wrench is thrown into the life you’ve built. It could be the death of your partner, the birth of a child, or divorce that throws your plans into disarray. Now you’re wondering: does the state of Washington recognize this relationship as a real marriage? Read on to learn more.

Mature Couple Backpacking in Forest

What Exactly Is Common-Law Marriage?

A common-law marriage is a legally recognized union between two people living together for a period of time and holding themselves out to friends, family, and the community as “being married”, but without ever actually having a formal ceremony or getting a marriage license. Interestingly, common-law couples must pursue a divorce if they wish to end the union.

Does the State of Washington Recognize Common-Law Marriages?

Washington does not recognize common-law marriages. Even if you have been living together for over ten years or several decades, you do not have the same rights as a legally married couple. Even having children, using identical surnames, and living together will not qualify for a common-law marriage. There are only ten states and the District of Columbia that still recognize this type of marriage.

However, in Washington State, there’s a doctrine that is somewhat similar to common-law marriage called “Committed Intimate Relationship” (CIR). Under this doctrine, a couple may be treated like a legally married couple in some scenarios and not in others.

What is a Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR)?

There is no strict definition of what constitutes a committed intimate relationship (also called quasi-marital, meretricious, or marital-like relationship). However, the more marriage-like the relationship, the more likely a court is to consider it a committed intimate relationship.

To determine whether a committed intimate relationship existed, the court will consider the following factors:

  • The duration of the relationship
  • Continuous cohabitation
  • The purpose of the relationship
  • Intent of the parties
  • Whether or not the parties pooled their resources
  • Whether the parties performed joint services for the betterment of the relationship

Not all of these factors are necessary to establish the existence of a committed intimate relationship. Nor will all relationships that exhibit all of these traits automatically be deemed as committed intimate relationships. Lastly, whether the parties could otherwise legally marry will not preclude the court from finding the existence of a CIR.

Rights in Committed Intimate Relationships

If an unmarried couple’s relationship constitutes a CIR as determined by the court, their rights and responsibilities are similar to those of married couples. If a couple cannot resolve disputed issues amicably between themselves, the court may need to get involved in making determinations.

The most common issues that arise during the conclusion of a committed intimate relationship include:

  • Determining child support and child custody
  • Determining property ownership rights and division of assets
  • Determining division of debts and liabilities

Division of property and assets is often the most contentious issue of all. Upon ascertaining the existence of a committed intimate relationship, the court will then seek to split the property in a just and equitable manner. 

Just as for a married couple, property division in a CIR doesn’t always result in a 50-50 split. Above all else, the court’s primary goal is to ensure that parties are left in a fair financial position once the relationship ends.

Also worth noting is that when a couple acquires property during a CIR, it is presumed to be community property. The date a committed intimate relationship began can therefore be very significant during a Washington divorce.

Are There Any Differences Between a Committed Intimate Relationship and Common-Law Marriage?

There are many differences. One of the biggest is that a CIR only conveys limited rights. Unlike a spouse, an individual in a CIR does not have the right to collect social security benefits, receive special parenting privileges, or make healthcare or end-of-life decisions, among other things. 

The second is that the scope that can be considered in a CIR is incredibly limited. At best, CIR is a legal tool for dividing assets. That’s to mean that the existence of a CIR does not grant the court authority to order alimony (spousal support) or attorney’s fees as in a divorce

What Should I Do?

One thing that you can do to try to protect yourself in situations like this is to create a Cohabitation Agreement. A Cohabitation Agreement will establish terms for managing financial details, what interest each partner has in the other’s property, and how you will divide assets in the relationship ends. It’s essentially like a prenuptial agreement for non-married folks.

Contact Us To Learn More

At Petrelli Previtera, we are committed to helping your CIR have legal protections in place so that there are no surprises in the event you separate. Find out more about our award-winning family law services by calling 866-465-5395 or contacting us online to arrange an initial, comprehensive consultation.