What many people don’t know is that this community property presumption can also extend to non-married couples. So, yes, if you and your significant other (boy/girl-friend, or whatever euphemism the kids are using these days) breakup, they may have a right to take up to half of the property that you thought was yours. This is because Washington state extends the community property presumption to “committed intimate relationships” (CIRs). Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wn.2d 339, 898 P.2d 831 (1995).
If you are in a CIR, you probably don’t know it. Although Washington does not recognize “common law marriage,” CIRs are similar. A CIR is defined as a stable, marital-like relationship where the parties cohabitate with the knowledge that they are not lawfully married. Whether a CIR exists depends on a number of factors. By living with your significant other, you may be subject to many marital-like legal responsibilities, including child custody and support, “spousal” maintenance, estate planning and tax considerations, powers of attorney and health directives, and property division.
The exact moment when a normal relationship becomes a CIR is very murky, as you might imagine. When does someone you’re dating become your “significant other”? When does a relationship become “serious”? In reality, these moments are not clearly defined, because relationships usually progress naturally. However, under the law, the community property presumption does not arise until a CIR exists. Thus, because property and income is acquired and earned on specific and determinable days, the exact day that a CIR arises is of utmost importance. As you can imagine, this can lead to messy and expensive legal battles.
Interestingly, the CIR doctrine evolved from an archaic concept called “meretricious relationships,” a word adapted from the French meretrix, meaning prostitute.
How can I protect myself?
The existence of a CIR depends on many complex factors, but one requirement is living together. That means that the decision of whether to move in with your boy- or girl-friend can be as serious a decision as whether to get married. In other words, consulting with an attorney first is highly recommended. For instance, even if you put your name on the title to property, a court may still find it to be community property.
A cohabitation agreement is one legal tool that can protect you and your significant other. A cohabitation agreement is basically like a prenuptial agreement, but without the marriage. However, such an agreement must meet strict substantive and procedural legal requirements, or a court may refuse to enforce it.
Contact us today about your property concerns
Our firm has worked on divorces where the marriage was preceded by a CIR. That meant that property acquired before the marriage could have been treated like community property, even though only one person’s name was on the title. A well-drafted cohabitation agreement could have protected everyone’s interests, and saved both parties in legal fees.
If you have any questions about your relationship, contact Marie Tilden or Dylan Trosper at Tilden & Associates.