What happens when my partner and I separate, but we never married?
In Washington, some unmarried people have a partnership that courts call a “committed intimate relationship,” which I will abbreviate “CIR” in what follows. The rights and obligations of such Washington unmarried couples are determined by the case Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wn.2d 339 (1995) and subsequent cases. The Washington legislature has not defined CIRs, and so the case law in these matters governs.
The Washington Supreme Court, in Connell, defined a committed intimate relationship as one that is a stable marriage-like relationship between parties who cohabit with the knowledge that they are not legally married. A court, if it were determining whether your particular relationship was a CIR, would consider the following factors, which are not all the factors a court might consider, nor must all the factors be present in your particular case: 1) how continuous was your cohabitation, 2) how long did your cohabitation last, 3) did you pool your resources or use your separate assets for joint projects, 4) what did each of you consider to be the purpose of your relationship and cohabitation, and 5) what was your mutual intent in living together. No one factor is more important than any other, and none are construed in a technical sense. Some facts are (somewhat surprisingly) not relevant to determining whether you and your partner shared a CIR: engagement rings, attempts to have children, having children and raising them together, or use of the other person’s surname. As you can see, the issues involved in determining whether a CIR existed are deeply fact-driven, and so a judge’s determination in this regard is unlikely to be overturned on appeal.
A CIR ends when either partner unequivocally intends to end the relationship.
If you have participated in a CIR, your separate property and liabilities (that is, property or debt you brought into the relationship, or inherited, or received by gift) will not be divided by the court, but your CIR property (that is, community-property-like assets acquired by either partner’s labor during the course of the CIR, or the increase of those assets) will be divided equitably between you and your partner. The presumption under marital community property law is an equal division of assets and obligations, but all such divisions are subject to the discretion of the judge’s view of the equity of the asset and liability division. So too with CIR assets and liabilities. If you and your partner have commingled community and separate property during the course of your relationship, it will all be treated as CIR property, except to the extent you can reasonably trace separate property contributions back to the owner. If you wait longer than three years to ask the court to equitably divide your CIR assets and liabilities (which is the general statute of limitations on oral contracts), the court will no longer have authority to divide your CIR assets and liabilities. In CIR division of assets, the court will not award attorney’s fees equitably, as it would in a divorce, but rather each partner will pay his or her own attorney’s fees and costs, unless other doctrines apply to shift fees (statutes, contracts, or bad faith, for example). It is possible that a partner’s obligation to pay money to a former CIR partner may not be dischargeable in bankruptcy.
In a marriage, the court has equitable power to order one partner to pay spousal maintenance (alimony) to the other, if a different outcome would be unjust and inequitable. Not so in CIRs. Courts cannot order one CIR partner to pay spousal maintenance to the other.
If a deceased CIR partner has no Will, the surviving CIR partner has no intestate inheritance rights under Washington law. All the deceased partner’s assets, other than the surviving partner’s share of CIR property, will pass to the deceased CIR partner’s spouse, children, parents, siblings, and other relatives. None will pass to the surviving CIR partner, absent a Will providing for a gift to the surviving CIR partner.
If your partner dies, you have a marriage-like claim to one-half of the CIR property (as would a spouse in a probate). The four-month creditor claim period for probate creditors does not apply to a surviving CIR partner’s claims against his or her deceased partner’s estate.
If you and your CIR partner share children, you are likely to need to establish a parenting plan and order of child support, which can be accomplished by petitioning the court for those purposes.