Not Married, Not a Problem: Washington State’s “Committed Intimate Relationship” Doctrine Provides a Means for Some Unmarried Couples to Have Their Property Divided Just Like in a Regular Divorce

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In a divorce, the judge will have to divide your marital property and debts between the spouses.  The division must be “just and equitable” under the circumstances of the relationship.  But can an unmarried couples receive a just and equitable division of property after breaking up?  Under the right circumstances, the answer in Washington is yes.
 

Washington state employs a unique doctrine known as the “Committed Intimate Relationship,” sometimes abbreviated as “CIR.”  Courts have defined a CIR as a “stable, marital-like relationship where both parties cohabit with knowledge that a lawful marriage between them does not exist.”  It evolved to protect unmarried couples who acquire property during their relationships so that one party is not unjustly enriched at the end of such a relationship.  Although property can be divided just like a typical divorce, the CIR doctrine does not permit one person to seek spousal maintenance (alimony) or an award of attorney fees, as both rights are limited solely to married couples.

You will first have to convince the judge that you were in a CIR.  There are a number of factors that a judge will use to determine whether two people were in a CIR. None of these factors are necessarily more significant than any other.  In determining whether there is a CIR, it is important to understand that a CIR relationship cannot commence prior to the date the parties begin living together.  Every case will be different, and different judges might emphasize one factor over another.  These include (but are not limited to) the:

(1) Continuity of cohabitation.  This factor makes a commonsense determination of whether you were continuously living together based on your relationship.  For example, one judge found the relationship continuous even though the husband’s job kept him away for weeks at a time and where he was” regularly absent when he went to Alaska for work.”[1]  By contrast, in another case, the cohabitation was found not to be continuous where one person moved into her partner’s  home before their marriage, then later moved out for a period of several months; later, she moved back in when they reconciled, less than a year before they married.[2]

(2) Duration of the relationship.  The longer the relationship, the greater the chance of the judge finding that you were in a CIR.  In one case, a judge found that a CIR existed when the couple lived together and had a sexually intimate relationship for five years,[3] and another judge found that a CIR existed after only three years.[4]

(3) Purpose of the relationship. For this factor, the judge will look to see if the purpose of the relationship was companionship, support, love, sex, to create a family, or some combination of like things.  For a few examples, the judge may ask: (1) did you support one another in parenting; (2) did either of you provide emotional support through trying times; (3) did you present yourselves to the world as a family by living as a couple, attending events together; (4) did you assert in writing that you were domestic partners; and/or (5) other aspects of the relationship tending to show why you and your partner remained in the relationship for as long as you did.  Moreover, just because there may have been transactional benefits to the relationship, this does not, standing alone, invalidate this factor weighing in favor of there being a CIR.

(4) Pooling of resources and services for joint projects.  This factor entails whether the parties contributed time, energy, and resources to the relationship and/or to raising children, supporting one another in a concerted effort.  Did both parties contribute to groceries?  Was there a commingling of funds?  Even if some aspects of the finances are separate, it is the pooling of resources that is key.  And even if, for example, one party paid for housing and utilities while the other paid for health insurance and cable, a judge could interpret this as the parties working together to pay for their life together.

(5) Intent of the parties.  In essence, this factor is a summation of everything already mentioned: continuous cohabitation and dating over the course of many years; making known to the public that you were in a relationship; seeking to work through problems in the relationship when they arose; remaining faithful to one another; etc.  It should be noted that even if one or both of you were unfaithful during the marriage, this will not automatically mean you were not committed to the relationship because, at the end of the day, the court is looking at your intent in being in a relationship.

After walking through these factors and determining that you were in a CIR, “a trial court dealing with the termination of a committed intimate relationship may distribute only property that would qualify as community property were the parties legally married”[5] and then, finally, the judge makes a just and equitable distribution of such property.  Keep in mind, that under current law, a CIR is subject to a three-year statute of limitations. A party must sue to establish that the relationship existed within three years of the end of the relationship.[6]  If you think you might be—or at one time was—in a CIR, an attorney can help you discuss your situation, and evaluate the probability that the judge will also find that you were in a CIR.

[1] Ross v. Hamilton, 161 Wash. App. 1005 (Div. II, 2011).

[2] In re Marriage of Briskey, 145 Wn. App. 1023 (Div. II, 2008).

[3] In re Sutton and Widner, 85 Wash. App. 487 (Div. III, 1997).

[4] Ketchum v. Miller, 172 Wash. App. 1017 (Div. III, 2012).

[5] In re Marriage of Byerley, 183 Wn. App. 677 (Div. II, 2014).

[6] In re Matter of Kelley, 170 Wn. App. 722 (Div. III, 2012).

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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