As our society changes, more and more couples are choosing not to marry. What does this mean when a committed relationship comes to an end, but during the relationship you both acquired property, debts, and assets? Who gets what? Likely, you both have a lot of interest in each other’s stuff.
In Washington state, a romantic couple does not need to be married to have their debts and assets divided evenly after a breakup, and it doesn’t matter whose name everything is in. What?! Yes. The court calls a long-term committed relationship a “Committed Intimate Relationship” (a.k.a. CIR). If you have been in/are in a CIR, then you have rights in all the property that was acquired by you and your ex during your relationship. Again, it doesn’t matter whose name it is in, or who bought it, or who financed it, etc. The legally significant thing is when it was acquired – during your CIR or not. This includes but is not limited to houses, bank accounts, retirement account, vehicles, other personal property, credit cards, other debts, etc. If the property or debt was acquired during your CIR, then you both have rights/obligations to that property or debt. Depending on your situation, this could be a very valuable right.
You may be asking yourself – would my relationship qualify as a CIR?
The current factors the Washington court looks at to determine a CIR are:
- (1) continuous cohabitation (living together);
- (2) duration of the relationship;
- (3) purpose of the relationship;
- (4) pooling of resources and services for joint projects or bills; and
- (5) intent of the parties.
The court must review the facts and circumstances of each case, as they related to the factors above, in order to determine if a CIR exists. In general, does your relationship look and act like a marriage (but you just aren’t technically married)? If yes, then your relationship will likely be classified as a CIR. This is important to know because everything you both are acquiring during your relationship is going to be considered joint property even if it is only in your individual names.
If the court finds that a CIR did exist, then it will examine a few different factors to determine a fair distribution of the property and debts. The factors are:
- (1) the nature and extent of the community property (in general, all property that was acquired during the CIR);
- (2) the nature and extent of the separate property (in general, all property that was acquired by either party before or after the CIR or by inheritance);
- (3) the duration of the partnership; and
- (4) the economic circumstances of each partner at the time the division of property is to become effective.
These factors can be found in the law at RCW 26.09.080.
You are reading this right — in Washington almost all property acquired during the committed relationship is assumed to be community property (a.k.a. joint).
There are exceptions to community property related to a CIR. These exceptions are called “separate property”. The exceptions to joint/community property related to a CIR are generally as follows: property purchased by one of the parties prior to the CIR or after the CIR ends, and property acquired during the CIR by specific individual gift or inheritance (as well as any rents or profits stemming from that property). Neither party gets to have an interest in the other person’s separate property.
Washington law applies marriage like principles to CIRs. The court’s position is there is community-like property owned by the parties in a CIR, analogous to community property of a marriage. “If property is acquired when a party is involved in a committed intimate relationship, it is presumed to be jointly owned.” In re Marriage of Nuemiller, 183 Wn.App. 914, 335 P.3d 1019 (Div. 3 2014)(citing In re Estate of Langeland, 177 Wn.App. 315, 324-25, 312 P.3d 657 (2013)). The court can make a fair and equitable division of the property and debts after a CIR ends, providing both parties with their community interest of all the property pursuant to the principles laid out in Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wn.2d 339 (1995); Marriage of Pearson-Maines, 70 Wn. App. 860, 855 P.2d 1210 (1993); Foster v. Thilges, 61 Wn.App. 880, 812 P.2d 523, (1991); Marriage of DeHollander, 53 Wn.App 695, 770 P.2d 638 (1989); Marriage of Hilt, 41 Wn.App 434, 704 P.2d 672 (1985); Marriage of Lindsey, 101 Wn.2nd 299, 678 P.2nd 3238 (1984); Warden v. Warden, 36 Wn.App. 693, 676 P.2nd 1037 (1984).
Protect Yourself with A Cohabitation Agreement
Even if you may not think you are in a CIR, it is still important to know the laws regarding these protections and laws. If you were to get into a long-term relationship in the future, these laws would start to apply to you. One thing that you can do to try to protect yourself (if you don’t want these laws to apply) in situations like this is by creating 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 and debts in the event that the relationship ends (it’s like a prenuptial agreement for non-married folks). This is a contractual agreement where the parties can contract aground the CIR doctrine in Washington state.
It should be noted that a surviving partner in a CIR does not have the same status as a widow (if they were married) when their partner dies. It is important to establish estate planning documents related to aging, disability, and death. If you are not married, your property will not automatically pass to your partner unless you specify in an estate planning document. The estate planning documents that should be considered are as follows: a will; durable power of attorney; advanced directive; and beneficiary designations. It is recommended to speak with an experienced attorney to draft these documents because there are a lot of enforcement issues if it is not drafted properly.
If you think you are in a Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR) and you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out. Knowledge is power, don’t bury your head in the sand. If there is a dispute about the division of joint property, either party can either request the court divide it, or the parties can negotiate an agreement. If you need assistance contact attorney, Amber Rush, at Navigate Law Group. Contact Amber with the buttons below!
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Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue, you should consult an attorney.