We have common-law marriage, right?

February 13, 2014, by

People tend to throw around the term "common-law marriage" to refer to couples who have lived together for a long time. The implication is that by living together, without getting the legal document, the spouses have acquired some rights in each other's property.

Washington does not have common law marriage. Here, you're not married unless you get the document. But courts do recognize long-term relationships. The Washington Supreme Court has said that when a relationship qualifies, and the couple splits up or one dies, the court should make a "just and equitable" distribution of property between the parties. The reasoning is that the two people living together will take care of each other's things, buy assets together, and support each other in various ways. If this goes on long enough, they acquire a partial ownership in each other's property.

So what sort of relationship qualifies? The Supreme Court has said they look at a number of factors, but the most important factor is that the parties lived together. Other factors include:

  • Continuous cohabitation
  • Duration of the relationship
  • Purpose of the relationship
  • Pooling of resources for joint projects
  • The parties' intent.

Establishing these factors and determining a fair and equitable distribution of property can be a long, painful process potentially involving lots of legal fees and possibly even a trial. Couples in this type of relationship should think about avoiding the pain by planning ahead. A cohabitation agreement, for example, describes property rights, duties and financial support, similar to a prenuptial agreement. Careful estate planning, too, can forestall after-death stress by recognizing each other's contributions to the relationship. For example, a couple in a long-term relationship may decide to execute Wills giving everything to each other, the way spouses would. Or, they might give each other significant gifts that would both recognize the relationship and make it financially disadvantageous to challenge the Will. (No, we're not going to tell you to get married. Unless you want to.)

So what is this non-married relationship called? The Washington Supreme Court in 2007 chose a new name for it: Committed Intimate Relationship, or CIR. Previously they were called "meretricious" relationships. The Court rejected the word "meretricious" for its negative connotation. In fact in 1989 the Court condemned the word "meretricious" for being "offensive, demeaning and sexist" because it is based in a word meaning "prostitute."

By the way, this is different from a State Registered Domestic Partnership. Registered DPs have many of the same rights as married couples. But note that, starting this summer, DPs will only be available to couples where one partner is 62 or older.