Common law marriages are the subject of many misconceptions, primarily because the concept seems so amorphous. In fact, Washington does not use the term “common law marriage,” except when referring to couples who formed a common law marriage outside Washington and seek recognition of their common law marriage in Washington.
However, an analog to common law marriage in Washington state, called a committed intimate relationship (CIR), was recognized as early as 1984. Plus, it is now routinely accepted when dissolving a long-standing relationship that demonstrates the couple’s intent to create a CIR.
What is a Common Law Marriage in Washington State and What is it Not?
Common law marriage is not recognized in Washington. However, a committed intimate relationship, also known as a meretricious relationship, is a term used for relationships that confer legal rights to the couple without meeting the legal requirements for a marriage.
In other words, a marriage is licensed and solemnized under Washington law. By contrast, a committed intimate relationship is a marital-like relationship that was not licensed or solemnized but is still recognized as a relationship that confers some rights to the couple.
Here are five misconceptions about common law marriage in Washington state.
1. Common Law Marriage is a Trap
False. One concern expressed by many men is they could be trapped into a committed intimate relationship. For example, they might worry that moving in with their significant other or having children together will turn a relationship into a common law marriage even when they have no intention of marrying.
This does not happen in Washington. For a court to find a marital-like relationship, the couple must both behave as if they are married and intend to create a marital-like relationship through long-term cohabitation and exclusivity.
If you have a joint bank account, own real estate together, name each other in your wills, and introduce yourselves as married, a court is much more likely to find your relationship marital-like. Thus, to minimize the risk of being held to a committed intimate relationship, you should handle your financial and legal matters separately and make clear to third parties that you are not married.
2. Common Law Marriage Ends at the State Border
This is not true. Common law marriages formed legally in another state are recognized in Washington. Therefore, if you moved to Washington after establishing a common law marriage in another state, Washington will recognize you as married even though Washington does not recognize domestic common law marriages.
3. Common Law Marriage and Domestic Partnership are the Same
This is also not true. Committed intimate relationships are formed by how the couple behaves and are not formalized.
Conversely, domestic partnerships are registered with the Washington Secretary of State. They provide a set of rights defined by statute and are now limited to people over the age of 62. They are intended to replicate the rights conferred by marriage without causing a senior’s income to exceed limits for Social Security and Medicare benefits.
4. When a Common Law Marriage Dissolves, the Couple Just Split the Property Equally
No. If a court finds that a couple was in a committed intimate relationship, the court has the authority to divide property and debts in a just and equitable way. This means the property division after a breakup is neither left to the couple nor limited to simply splitting the property equally.
For example, if you took out a student loan during the relationship, you might be solely responsible for repaying the debt. On the other hand, if you sold a pre-relationship vehicle and used the proceeds to buy a new vehicle during the relationship, you might get sole ownership of the vehicle.
5. After a Common Law Marriage Breaks Up, the Mother Always Gets Custody of the Children
Wrong. Besides resolving property ownership, a court also has the authority to resolve custody of children born or adopted during a committed intimate relationship. This is handled like a divorce, with the parents encouraged to agree on a parenting plan that sets out the residence time (custody) for each parent and child support. If the couple cannot agree, the court will resolve the issues.
Overcoming the Misconceptions of Common Law Marriage in Washington State
You should understand how committed intimate relationships are created and the rights that attach to them rather than relying on misconceptions. This will help you to avoid inadvertently subjecting yourself to the rules of a committed intimate relationship. It also helps you to understand how you and your partner can resolve child custody and property issues in an orderly way if it ends.
Contact us to discuss your common law marriage in Washington state.