When an unmarried couple separates and needs legal help with dividing what they have acquired, one question that we need to determine is whether the relationship has amounted to an “Intimate Committed Relationship”. To make this determination, the court will look for factors indicating whether the parties intended to live in a long term married like relationship, or just to be two friends living together. These factors may include how they hold themselves out to family and friends, the degree to which they commingled their finances, indications of intent to marry, etc. It is not a black and white line; it’s more of an “I’ll know it when I see it” kind of test.
The difference it makes is that if there is an Intimate Committed Relationship, then the court can find that the couple has acquired community property and debts even though they never married. Without such a relationship, there would only be separate interests and separate debt, though there might be some joint debts or property that both parties would have separate interest in (how’s that for confusing?). One way of looking at it that if there is a community, then earnings of either party are community property, and therefore things purchased with those earnings would be community property. Without a community being established, each person would own what their own earnings purchased. This can make a big difference when there have been significant acquisitions, such as a house or investments.
Unfortunately, the law in the State of Washington is somewhat vague as to the process for dividing property between unmarried couples, whether there is a Committed Intimate Relationship or not. You will even get varied opinions as to whether you can file a legal action to divide property and debts between the couple as a family law proceeding or simply as a civil proceeding (treating it like a business deal rather than as a family issue). However, if there are children, that is an extra reason to try and file it all as a family law proceeding rather than having to file two separate actions (one for property and one for parenting issues).
In the end, what it comes down to for me is that I would advise a couple who is trying to decide whether to marry or just live together long term to go ahead and get married. It just gives them clearer rights and a clearer process for dealing with issues should they break up down the road.