Cohabitation Laws in Washington State

Unmarried Washington couples who've lived together in committed intimate relationships have some legal rights and duties that are similar to married couples. Learn about those rights and which relationships qualify.

By , Legal Editor

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.

Different Names for "Meretricious Relationships" in Washington

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:

  • meretricious relationship (a term that's now out of favor, partly because of its origin in the French word for prostitute)
  • cohabitation relationship
  • equity relationship, and
  • committed intimate relationship.

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.

What Makes a Cohabitant Relationship in Washington State?

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:

  • whether the couple lived together continuously
  • the length of the relationship
  • the purpose of the relationship, and
  • whether the couple pooled resources and services for joint projects.

(In re Marriage of Pennington, 14 P.3d 764 (Wash. Sup. Ct. 2000).)

Rights and Duties of Cohabiting Couples vs. Married Couples

In Washington, couples in a qualifying committed intimate relationship have some of the same rights and duties as married couples, including:

  • the right to contract with each other
  • the duty to support their children (as is true for all parents, married or not)
  • ownership rights to property either partner acquires or earns during their relationship, and
  • responsibilities for debts and liabilities they take on during the relationship.

However, there are some major differences between cohabitant relationship and marriages. Even if they're in equity relationships, unmarried couples do not:

  • have a legal duty to provide financial support to one another during or after the relationship, or
  • receive the same tax benefits as married couples.

What Happens When Cohabitant Relationships End in Washington?

When couples end their committed intimate relationship, they might face many of the same issues that come up in a divorce, such as:

  • how to divide their assets
  • how to assign responsibility for paying their debts, and
  • determining custody and support for any children they have together.

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.

Dividing Property From a Committed Intimate Relationship

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:

  • determine whether the couple had a qualifying committed intimate relationships
  • evaluate the interest each partner has in the property acquired during the relationship, and
  • distribute the property in a way that's fair.

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.

Child Custody and Support for Children of Cohabiting Parents

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.

Agreements to Pay Support to a Former Cohabitant Partner

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.

How a Cohabitation Agreement Can Help

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:

  • how you'll pay for household expenses and split household duties
  • ownership of any property that either or both of you acquire during the relationship
  • responsibility for debts that either of you acquire during the relationship, and
  • what will happen to your property if you split up or if one of you dies.

You can find more information (and forms) on preparing a cohabitation agreement in Nolo's book, Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples.

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