What is Considered a “Committed Intimate Relationship”?

Rights and protections for unmarried couples in Washington

While legal marriage is the normative standard in American culture for couples who live together, have children, purchase property and plan to remain together, it is by no means the only option. Over the last decade, the rate of people in cohabiting relationships in the U.S. has steadily increased, particularly among those over age 50.

There are a number of benefits for couples who enter into a legal marriage. However, most of these benefits can be available to couples outside of marriage, as well. The state of Washington does not recognize common law marriage (conferring the benefits of marriage without a ceremony or exchange of vows). However, a unique designation, “committed intimate relationships,” affords certain protections to couples living together who are not legally married. Washington also allows for registered domestic partnership if one partner is over age 62, which provides all state-based marriage benefits to registered partners.

Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR)

Washington courts will consider a list of factors to determine whether a relationship qualifies, including:

  • Length and exclusivity of the relationship (usually at least two years)
  • Whether cohabitation was continuous
  • Whether the parties presented themselves as a committed couple
  • How money was handled (pooling of funds, co-ownership of property, etc.)
  • Whether there were joint bank accounts, credit cards, etc.
  • Naming of one another in wills or other planning documents

If it is determined that a couple was in a committed intimate relationship, upon separation, Washington courts will make determinations if the parties cannot agree on their own, regarding:

  • Property: Ownership rights and the interests of each party will be determined based on “just and equitable” distribution. Property acquired during the relationship will be considered jointly owned, as for a marriage. Property, assets and debts that were obtained and kept separate would not be divided.
  • Support: Courts will not award support payments to a partner upon the termination of a CIR, but they will determine child custody, child support and parenting time.
  • Rights on death of one partner: If there is no will, the Washington Supreme Court has held that a survivor of a CIR does not inherit as would a spouse.

Make a Plan                                                        

Whether you qualify as being in a CIR or not, if you plan to remain unmarried, it is wise to ensure your own protections. Many lawyers recommend drawing up a cohabitation agreement to establish terms for how you manage financial details of your relationship; what interest each partner has in the other’s income and property; and how you will divide your assets and debt should the relationship end.

It’s also critical to cover your bases in planning for aging, disability and death, because Washington law governing non-marital relationships is uncertain at best. Several key documents are recommended:

  • Will: Without a will, Washington law governs who inherits your assets—your spouse, children, parents, siblings or other nearest blood relative. Note that a registered domestic partner will be treated as your spouse, but a CIR partner will not. If you have children under the age of 18, you may designate in your will whom you wish to assume custody upon your death.
  • Durable Power of Attorney: This document will allow your partner to access your financial accounts and take care of bills in the event of your incapacity.
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care/Advance Directive: Also in the event of your incapacity, this allows your partner to make health care decisions on your behalf, and provides guidance as to your wishes.
  • Beneficiary Designations: Naming a beneficiary on retirement accounts, insurance and other assets allows these items to transfer to the named person without having to go through probate—whether or not you have a will.

If you’re in an unmarried cohabiting relationship, the best way to protect your mutual interests is to discuss these legal risks and protections with an experienced family law attorney.

For more information on this area, see our overview of family law.

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