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Committed Intimate Relationships (fka Meretricious Relationships)

Most people know that married people get divorced and, in the process, deal with property rights between the former spouses.  Washington doesn’t have a common-law marriage rule for unmarried couples, but does have another legal doctrine that is very similar.  For committed intimate partners, the court considers the factors detailed in the common law doctrine for those in a “committed intimate relationship” (CIR).  Below is a summary of those factors, with citations to the cases from which this part of the law has evolved.

What is a Committed Intimate Relationship?

A “committed intimate relationship” or “equity relationship” is a “stable, marital-like relationship where both parties cohabit with knowledge that a lawful marriage between them does not exist.” Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wash.2d 339, 346, 898 P.2d 831 (1995) (citing In re Marriage of Lindsey, 101 Wash.2d 299, 304, 678 P.2d 328 (1984); Harry M. Cross, Community Property Law in Washington (Revised 1985), 61 Wash. L.Rev.. 13, 23 (1986)).

Several factors are considered to determine the existence of an equity relationship. Connell, 127 Wash.2d at 346, 898 P.2d 831 (citing Lindsey, 101 Wash.2d at 304–05, 678 P.2d 328). No one factor is determinative. Becoming married is a fact to consider, but it is not determinative. See In re Marriage of Pennington, 142 Wash.2d 592, 604, 14 P.3d 764 (2000) (one party married to other partner during part of time court found relevant to CIR).

Several relevant factors must be examined by the court to find an equity relationship. These include: continuous cohabitation, relationship duration, relationship purpose, pooling of resources and services for joint projects, and the parties’ intent. Connell, 127 Wash.2d at 346, 898 P.2d 831 (citing Lindsey, 101 Wash.2d at 304–05, 678 P.2d 328). These factors are neither exclusive nor hypertechnical but rather a means to examine all relevant evidence. Pennington, 142 Wash.2d at 602, 14 P.3d 764. No factor is more important than another. Id..

The Pennington court added further additional factors to include: “(1) Whether the parties were married to others during the period of co-habitation, (2) whether the parties expressed an intent to marry, (3) whether the parties expressed an intent to have children together, (4) whether either or both parties made major career or residential moves based upon their committed relationship, and (5) whether the existence of a meretricious relationship is contested or uncontested.” Id.

In sum, over the past 90 years, when dealing with property distribution between partners in a committed intimate relationship, Washington common law has evolved to look beyond how property is titled, requiring equitable distribution of property that would have been community property had the partners been married. But equity is limited; only jointly acquired property, but not separate property, can be equitably distributed. Olver v. Fowler, 161 Wash.2d 655, 168 P.3d 348 (2007).

Unlike a marriage, at the end of an equity relationship, solely what would be community property had the parties been married is before the court; the court may not dispose of the parties’ separate property. In re Long and Fregeau, 158 Wash.App. 919, 244 P.3d 26 (2010).