It’s no mystery – a lot of people fall in love, live together, but never get married. And in Washington, the law sometimes causes confusion when it comes to dissolving that kind of relationship, especially around property division. The rules about property during divorce and at death are often clearer for people who elect to get married.
First of all, words matter. While there is no official “common law marriage” in Washington, couples who live together and combine their financial lives may still have a legally significant relationship even though they aren’t married. Washington formerly used the term “meretricious relationship” and now uses the term “committed intimate relationship” for two people who are in an intimate relationship and live together and whose relationship meet certain criteria.
One way to clarify the difference between what happens to your property during the dissolution of a marriage versus the dissolution of a committed intimate relationship is to compare the two.
If you’ve been married, when you get a divorce the court equitably splits up both the community property in your marriage (the stuff you acquired while you were married) and may, at its discretion, split the separate property too, which is the separate property that each of your brought into your marriage. In some ways, it’s pretty straightforward: the court may or may not allow you to keep what you had coming in, and the court splits what you accumulated while you were married (which can include a business, by the way).
On the other hand, when a committed intimate relationship ends either by a death or by a break-up, the court may not divide your separate property unless there’s a good legal theory about the reason why it should. And, the court may or may not divide your jointly acquired property as evenly as they might have had you been married.
More and more, people who are in committed intimate relationships and who choose not to marry make the thoughtful decision to write a contract between themselves to design their own rules about the nature of their relationship. These contracts are called “Separate Property Agreements” or “Property Status Agreements”.
These agreements are extremely useful to courts when someone dies or if the couple breaks up, because the agreement identifies each person’s property and can also detail how the property should be distributed if the relationship ends.
In addition to the Property Status Agreement, estate planning lawyers strongly recommend that unmarried couples create powers of attorney and medical directives to make sure that their partners can be by one another’s side in the event of a medical crisis.
But, what about for people who don’t get married or take these precautions? If you are in a long-term relationship and you are not married, it would be a very good idea to talk with a lawyer.