Washington State doesn't recognize common law marriage, but courts in the state have recognized that certain unmarried couples who've lived together in committed relationships have some of the same rights as married couples—but not all.
Because legal rights for certain unmarried couples in Washington come from court decisions rather than statutes, different names have been used over the years for the same type of relationship, including:
Although Washington courts have defined these relationships in somewhat different ways, all of these terms basically refer to stable, marriage-like relationships in which the couples live together and share their lives while knowing that they don't have a legal marriage.
There's no precise formula to determine if couple's relationship qualifies for treatment as a committed intimate relationship in Washington. When judges are making this decision, they'll look at all of the relevant circumstances, including:
(In re Marriage of Pennington, 14 P.3d 764 (Wash. Sup. Ct. 2000).)
In Washington, couples in a qualifying committed intimate relationship have some of the same rights and duties as married couples, including:
However, there are some major differences between cohabitant relationship and marriages. Even if they're in equity relationships, unmarried couples do not:
When couples end their committed intimate relationship, they might face many of the same issues that come up in a divorce, such as:
Couples may work out agreements between themselves on any or all of these issues. But if they can't agree, they may ask a judge to decide for them.
Let's look more carefully at how some of these issues are treated in Washington.
When unmarried couples who've lived together in a cohabitant relationship break up, they usually want to know what will become of the property they purchased and invested in together during the relationship. For example, many of these couples purchase a home together and continue to make mortgage and property tax payments together for years.
When dividing any property acquired during a cohabitation relationship, Washington courts take a three-step approach:
It's worth emphasizing that Washington's community property laws don't apply in unmarried relationships. So judges won't presume that cohabiting couples equally own any property they acquired during their committed intimate relationship, and they won't necessarily divide that property 50-50.
When unmarried parents end their committed intimate relationships, judges may issue orders dealing with the custody and support of their children—just as in divorce cases. Those orders will be based on Washington's child support guidelines and child custody laws.
As with all issues related to ending a cohabitant relationship, unmarried parents may agree between themselves about parenting arrangements and payment of child support after they split up. But when it comes to child-related issues, judges will approve these agreements only if the provisions are in the children's best interests.
Because unmarried couples have no legal obligation to support each other, a judge will not order alimony or maintenance when they end their committed intimate relationship. But these couples may agree between themselves that one former partner will pay support to the other. As long as they've put those agreements into a valid, written contract signed by both partners, a judge may enforce the contract.
We've mentioned that unmarried couples may enter into contracts with each other on the issues involved in ending their committed intimate relationship. But it might be difficult to do this when your relationship has already broken down. A better option is to work out a cohabitation agreement early on in your relationship—such as when you move in together or when you're both clear that this is a committed, long-term relationship. The agreement may cover issues that will apply during your relationship as well as after it ends (if that happens), such as:
You can find more information (and forms) on preparing a cohabitation agreement in Nolo's book, Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples.