Common Law Marriage vs. Committed Intimate Relationship in Washington State

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by Chris Torrone

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03.02.2022

Apart from legal marriage, when it comes to long-term, committed relationships in Washington State, the well-known Common Law Marriage isn’t recognized. In its place, there is the option of something known as Committed Intimate Relationship, or CIR. This legally-recognized agreement offers couples many of the benefits of a Common Law Marriage status, along with certain rights, limitations, and responsibilities upon separation. 

The doctrine of a committed intimate relationship (CIR) confers protection to couples who live together but are not legally married. The registration of domestic partners is also allowed in the US where one partner is above 62 years of age. If, in a relationship, a person plans to remain unmarried, it is prudent to draw a cohabitation agreement to determine how the financial affairs of the relationship are to be managed. It also helps to establish the interests that each party has in the property or income of the other party, as well as how the assets and debts should be split in case the relationship ends.

Important Documents while Making a Plan for Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR)

The Will

In circumstances when there is no will, the inheritance of the assets is governed by Washington law. Under Washington law, the property will be inherited by the spouse, children, parents, siblings or the nearest blood kin. Unlike in CIR, a domestic partner is treated as a spouse.

Durable Power of Attorney

This legal document allows one partner to access the financial accounts of the other to settle their partner’s bills in case the partner is incapacitated.

Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This is an advance directive whereby in the event of one partner’s incapacity the other partner can make healthcare decisions on behalf of the injured or sick party as well as provisions of guidance for the other’s wishes.

Beneficiary Designations

This entails naming the beneficiary on insurance, retirement accounts and other assets. This allows those items to be transferred to the named party without the need for probate whether there is a will or not.

Differences Between Common-Law Marriage and a Committed Intimate Relationship

The law on committed intimate relationships (CIR) is applied to two unmarried individuals who are cohabiting and have shared rights in common (community/joint) property ownership. A committed intimate relationship is also called an equity relationship. A CIR is defined as a stable marriage-like relationship whereby both parties are in cohabitation and are in full knowledge of the fact that there is no existing lawful marriage between them.

In contrast, a common law marriage takes place when a couple lives together for a certain period of time and also lives like a married couple but without formalizing their marriage. Under the common law marriage assumption, the partners must be of marriageable age, that is 18 years and above, of sound mind and not previously married to someone else. 

Other steps of affirming a common-law marriage such as sharing a bank account or taking the last name are required. While common-law marriage is a well-known concept in the US,  certain states, including Washington State, do not recognize it. However, Washington will recognize a common-law marriage if it was established in another country.

Washington State does, however, recognize committed intimate relationships as the equivalent of common-law marriage. Although there is no specific checklist for establishing CIR, there are certain factors that are considered as proof of its existence.

Criteria for Determining the Existence of Committed Intimate Relationship

Length of the Relationship– It should include at least two years of cohabitation.

Continuity of Cohabitation– Was the relationship continuous?

Money Handling– How finances are managed, such as in co-ownership of property or the pooling of funds.

Existence of Joint Accounts– The availability of jointly owned bank accounts or even credit cards.

Existence of Wills– Where partners name one another in the planning documents.

Proof for the existence of a CIR or its determination, is followed by the determinations regarding property, child support and rights upon the death of one partner especially where the parties do not agree by themselves.

Property 

 The just and equitable criteria are applied in the property ownership and distribution of interests for each party. Any property that is acquired during the relationship is considered as jointly owned just like in an ordinary marriage. Any assets, property and debts that are separately owned and kept cannot be considered for distribution.

Support 

After the CIR is terminated, the court cannot award payments for support to any partner except with regard to the parenting time of a child.  Child support and custody are determined after the termination of the CIR.

Rights Upon the Death of One Partner

In the event that one partner dies without having written a will, the survivor of a CIR is not entitled to any inheritance. Distribution of assets is determined by traditional laws governing property distribution to next of kin. 

Attorney’s Fees 

When a marriage ends, it is common for one spouse to ask the other to pay for the legal expenses or the attorney’s fee. In paying this fee, the situation must warrant the fee payment but in many situations, both spouses are allowed equal access to the legal framework. 

In ordinary circumstances, when a relationship, including a CIR, ends, there is no room for one spouse to ask for an attorney’s fee from the other except when children are involved, whereby the attorney’s fee is meant to cater to the legal costs for issues related to child support.

Legal Differences Between Common-Law Marriages and Committed Intimate Relationship

As we’ve learned, common-law marriage does not exist in Washington’s legal framework. To seek the rights and benefits of a married couple, the partners should enter into a legal marriage for their relationship to be recognized by the state. However, Washington State recognizes common-law marriages that have been created within other states.

The doctrine of a committed intimate relationship (CIR) recognizes the existence of long-term, committed and intimate coexistence that is sustained by two unmarried partners. These deliberations imply that a committed intimate relationship is recognized or determined legally and is subject to the rights and limitations determined by Washington State law.

couple considering a common law marriage or CIR

Financial Distribution in Committed Intimate Relationship

When it comes to finances following the dissolution of a relationship, the party must prove the existence of the CIR under the CIR criteria. Under this doctrine, the property, debts and financial rights are split according to the nature and extent of the resources, the length of the CIR and the individual economic situation of each party. 

In dividing the property, finances and debts, the court applies the fair and equitable standard of distribution. The fair and equitable principle applies to only those finances, property or debts that have been undertaken during the period when the two parties cohabited. 

Parenting in Committed Intimate Relationship

The parental responsibilities and rights depend on the parental status of a partner and not necessarily on the existence of a relationship. Biological and adoptive parents have the same legal rights to their children as other parents in Washington State. If one is neither the biological nor adoptive parent of the child, they can still have legal rights to the children under the de-facto parent doctrine. However, in the third case, the partner must demonstrate that they meet certain legal factors under the de-facto parent doctrine.

Conclusion

As we can see here, committed intimate relationship status can provide certain protections and rights to committed partners living together like a married couple without the legal formality of actual marriage. Unique criteria exist for determining this status. And rights to property or time with children following a death or the dissolution of the relationship will be determined in a similar fashion to legal or common-law marriages, subject to standard limitations and the laws governing wills, community property, custody, and all other considerations. . 

If you have questions or concerns about your legal relationship status, your rights and exclusions, or need help with the process, always hire an experienced, caring attorney to walk with you along the way. 

Torrone Law helps individuals and couples navigate successfully through a wide range of complex marriage, divorce, family and custody issues. We care deeply about our clients and their families, and work hard to protect their rights and get them the strongest settlement possible. Contact us today to learn more. 

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