Our Attorneys Outline the Issues that Unmarried Couples Face
In Washington State there is no common law marriage, so an unmarried couple that needs legal help with separating will need to look for another avenue. Our Seattle family lawyers can discuss what steps the couple may have made in the past and what issues they need help with.
An exception exists where a couple is not married but has formed a domestic partnership. They will be treated as if they were married under Washington law (but not federal law – senior couples may elect the domestic partnership option specifically to avoid impacting social security or pension benefits) and can use a traditional divorce process when they separate.
Initially domestic partnerships were available to both same sex couples and senior couples (at least one partner is over 62). However, in 2014 domestic partnerships for same sex couples who were not also in the senior category where converted to marriages. If you are not sure of your current status, a Seattle Divorce Services can help you sort it out.
The rest of this article is for unmarried couples who are also not registered as domestic partners.
How is Custody Decided for Unmarried Parents?
One set of issues arises where the couple has children. Just as for a married couple who are divorcing, there will be a need for both parenting arrangements (a parenting plan) as well as child support. The difference from a divorce is that the child related issues are required to be addressed in the divorce process. Since there is not a divorce process for the unmarried couple, the parenting issues will not be addressed unless until at least one member of the couple takes the initiative to file an action for parentage and child support.
If both parents are listed on the birth certificate, then the parentage action is simply to work out the parenting plan. However, if both parents are not listed on the birth certificate, then it may be necessary to file for a paternity determination so that the other parent is officially recognized as a legal parent of the child and can be added to the birth certificate.
If a couple has both property and parenting issues, they may need to file two separate actions. Washington counties do not all agree on whether both types of actions can be consolidated into one, so talk to the Seattle family lawyers at our firm.
Property Division for Unmarried Couples in a Committed Intimate Relationship
Often when a couple lives together for a period of time, they may acquire property or debt together that has not been specifically treated as belonging to one or the other. For instance, they might have purchased a house, a vehicle, or furniture together, and still owe money on those purchases as well. In some cases the property and debt will be in the name of one person, in other cases they may be in both names, and in some cases (such as with furniture or other goods) there may be no names attached as there is no title on such property.
To deal with cases like these, our Washington courts have developed a legal doctrine referred to as “committed intimate relationships” (CIR’s). Basically, this refers to a relationship that is sufficiently marriage-like. In determining whether the relationship is sufficiently marriage-like, the court will look at a number of different factors including:
- how long the couple has been together
- the degree to which they have pooled resources
- the degree to which they have otherwise acted or planned like a married couple
- The stability of the relationship over time
Our lawyers can go over the various factors in more detail with you. It is a very case by case analysis.
If the court determines that there was in fact a committed intimate relationship, then it will categorize property and debt as either community or separate. Community property is that acquired during the relationship, but not by gift or inheritance. Community property is generally divided, but not necessarily 50/50. Rather, it may be divided in whatever way the court finds to be fair and equitable. This may include looking at factors like:
- The length of the relationship
- The financial situation of each party going forward
- The nature and extent of the property and how it was acquired
Separate property (from before the relationship or acquired by gift or inheritance) is generally left with the person who owns it. This is similar to how property is divided in a divorce, except that the court has less power to divide separate property.
Property Division if There is No Committed Intimate Relationship
On the other hand, if the court does not find that a committed intimate relationship existed, then the community/separate property analysis does not apply. In that case it is simply a matter of determining what actual property rights each party has. Essentially, they are treated like two individuals with a business relationship. Here title will be key. For instance, if they purchased a house together in both names, then they both have an interest determined by the form of the purchase. Your family lawyer will want to see any documents you have related to purchase or ownership.
For non-titled property we would normally look to which person purchased the item. If there was a pooling of funds without establishing a committed intimate relationship, this is simply going to be a gray area for the court to wrestle with. In this situation, current possession may go a long way.
You do need to make sure you look at the nature of any debts as well as property. If both parties’ names are on the debt, then the creditor may be able to come after both of you, or may simply choose to go after the deeper pocket.
The Creation of Living Together Contracts
Certainly it is not ideal being in a relationship without knowing how a court may view the relationship after it is over and thus what rules might be applied to the division of property and debt at separation. Therefore it can be very helpful if the couple prepares a cohabitation or living together contract. At Seattle Divorce Services, our family lawyers will be happy to assist you with the drafting of such an agreement. This can both clarify the intent to live marriage-like as well as spell out how property and debt is to be acquired, held, and divided.
Also, be aware that without a marriage or domestic partnership, there is no right to alimony, though the couple may be able to construct something similar in a living together contract.
This can also be a good way to address less traditional kinds of relationships including open relationships, polyamory, or simply unusual financial structures.
Alternative Dispute Resolution Options for Unmarried Couples in Washington
Another consideration is that the process can be more complex for unmarried couples, with less predictable outcomes, you may want to consider an out of court dispute resolution process such as mediation or collaboration to resolve these kinds of issues. This gives you a great deal more control over the results and allows the two of you to creatively develop solutions that fit your needs and values. Our Seattle ADR lawyers are experienced in those methods and would be glad to explain how they work.
Call Our Seattle Law Firm Today To Evaluate Your Rights as an Unmarried Couple
If you wish to separate from a partner you are not married to, discuss your options with our Seattle family lawyers. Give us a call at 206-784-3049 or use the form on our website to schedule an appointment.