Cohabitation Laws in Washington State

by ECL Writer
Cohabitation Laws in Washington State

In the diverse landscape of modern relationships, cohabitation has become an increasingly common choice for couples seeking to build lives together without formal marriage. While Washington State embraces this trend of committed intimate partnerships, it lacks specific laws and legal recognition for cohabitation. This situation raises important questions about the rights, responsibilities, and potential pitfalls faced by unmarried couples sharing a home and life.

In this article, delve into the intricacies of cohabitation laws in Washington State. Exploring the absence of legal protections for cohabiting partners, we uncover the potential challenges they may encounter upon the dissolution of their relationship. From property division to child custody, we shed light on the crucial areas where cohabiting couples can protect themselves through cohabitation agreements and proactive legal measures.

Whether you’re considering cohabitation or seeking to safeguard your existing partnership, understanding the legal landscape in Washington State is essential for ensuring a stable and secure future.

Different Names for “Meretricious Relationships” in Washington

Meretricious Relationships is not a commonly used legal term in Washington state or any other jurisdiction. The term “meretricious relationship” generally refers to a non-marital, cohabiting relationship that involves a financial and emotional interdependence similar to a marriage.

  • Domestic Partnerships: Washington State offers domestic partnerships, which provide legal recognition to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples aged 62 or older. Domestic partnerships in Washington grant certain rights and responsibilities similar to those of married couples.
  • Common Law Marriage: Though Washington state does not recognize common law marriages formed within its borders, it does recognize valid common law marriages from other states that allow them. A common law marriage typically involves cohabiting and presenting themselves as a married couple without a formal marriage ceremony.
  • Cohabitation Agreements: Unmarried couples living together may choose to create a cohabitation agreement to outline their rights and obligations in the relationship, including property division, financial support, and other matters.

What Makes a Cohabitant Relationship in Washington State?

Cohabitant Relationship in a legal context, typically refers to a non-marital relationship where a couple lives together and shares a domestic life without being formally married. It’s important to note that cohabitation itself does not confer the same legal rights and protections as marriage or domestic partnerships in Washington.

  • Shared Residence: Living together in the same residence is a fundamental aspect of a cohabitant relationship.
  • Duration of the Relationship: The length of time the couple has been living together can be relevant in determining the nature of the relationship.
  • Financial Interdependence: Jointly owning property, sharing expenses, or commingling finances can demonstrate financial interdependence.
  • Intentions and Representations: How the couple presents themselves to others and whether they hold themselves out as a couple can be considered.
  • Emotional Bond and Commitment: Evidence of a romantic and committed relationship, such as emotional support and future plans together, may be taken into account.
  • Shared Responsibilities: Sharing household chores and responsibilities can indicate a committed relationship.

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

Rights and Duties of Cohabiting Couples vs. Married Couples

Married Couples

  • Legal Recognition: Marriage is a legally recognized relationship in all states. Married couples enjoy various legal protections, rights, and benefits under both state and federal law.
  • Property Rights: In the event of divorce, married couples may have rights to equitable distribution or community property laws, depending on the state’s laws.
  • Inheritance and Estate Planning: Married partners typically have automatic inheritance rights and can make medical and financial decisions for each other if one becomes incapacitated.
  • Tax Benefits: Married couples may file joint tax returns, potentially leading to certain tax benefits and deductions.
  • Spousal Privilege: In legal proceedings, spouses often have the privilege of not testifying against each other in court.
  • Health Insurance and Benefits: Many employers offer health insurance and other benefits to the spouses of their employees.
  • Child Custody and Support: In the event of divorce, married couples go through formal legal processes to determine child custody and support arrangements.

Cohabiting Couples

  • Legal Recognition: Cohabitation itself is not a legally recognized relationship in most states, including Washington. As a result, cohabiting couples do not receive the same legal protections as married couples.
  • Property Rights: Unmarried cohabiting couples do not have the same automatic property rights as married couples. Each partner generally retains ownership of the assets they brought into the relationship.
  • Inheritance and Estate Planning: Cohabitants may not have automatic inheritance rights, and they cannot make legal decisions for each other without proper legal documentation, such as wills or advanced directives.
  • Taxation: Cohabitating couples must file their tax returns separately, which may affect certain tax benefits available to married couples.
  • Spousal Privilege: The spousal privilege does not generally apply to unmarried cohabiting couples.
  • Health Insurance and Benefits: Cohabitating partners are not entitled to spousal benefits from employers or government programs.
  • Child Custody and Support: If the cohabiting couple has children together, they may need to establish legal agreements for child custody and support, just like any non-married parents.

What Happens When Cohabitant Relationships End in Washington?

1. Property Division: Unlike in a divorce where marital property is subject to equitable distribution, cohabiting couples do not have the same automatic rights to each other’s property. When a cohabitant relationship ends, the partners typically retain ownership of the assets they brought into the relationship. Any jointly owned property or assets acquired during the relationship may need to be divided based on each partner’s contributions and legal ownership.

2. Child Custody and Support: If the cohabiting couple has children together, they will need to establish legal agreements for child custody and child support, similar to any non-married parents. This may involve negotiating parenting plans and determining the financial responsibilities of each parent.

3. Spousal Support: Cohabiting partners generally do not have the same entitlement to spousal support (alimony) as married individuals. Spousal support laws apply specifically to marriages and registered domestic partnerships in Washington.

4. Legal Documents: Cohabitant couples who wish to protect their rights and interests may create legal documents such as cohabitation agreements, wills, and advanced directives. Cohabitation agreements can outline property rights, financial responsibilities, and other important matters to govern the relationship and its potential dissolution.

5. Dispute Resolution: If there are disagreements or disputes regarding property division, child custody, or other matters, cohabiting couples may need to seek resolution through mediation or the court system.

Dividing Property From a Committed Intimate Relationship

1. Cohabitation Agreements: If the couple created a cohabitation agreement, this legal document may govern the division of property and other important aspects of the relationship’s dissolution. Cohabitation agreements are contracts that outline how assets will be distributed and financial responsibilities managed if the relationship ends.

2. Joint Ownership: If assets, such as a house or a bank account, are jointly owned by both partners, they may be divided based on each partner’s contributions and ownership share.

3. Tracing of Assets: When assets are not jointly owned, it may be necessary to trace the source of funds used to acquire the property to determine ownership.

4. Equitable Principles: In some cases, courts may apply equitable principles to determine property division based on fairness and the contributions of each partner to the relationship.

5. Mediation or Arbitration: Couples may choose to use alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation or arbitration to come to an agreement on property division outside of court.

6. Legal Advice: Both parties may seek legal counsel to navigate the complexities of property division and protect their rights and interests

Child Custody and Support for Children of Cohabiting Parents

Judges may make decisions about the custody and maintenance of unmarried parents’ children when those relationships end, just like in divorce cases. The rules governing child custody and child support in Washington will serve as the foundation for such rulings.

Unmarried parents may come to an agreement between themselves on parenting time and child support payments after their partnership ends, as with all matters pertaining to dissolving a cohabiting relationship. However, judges will only approve these agreements if the clauses are in the best interests of the children when it comes to matters involving children.

Agreements to Pay Support to a Former Cohabitant Partner

When an unmarried couple ends their committed personal connection, a judge will not impose alimony or maintenance because they are not required by law to support one another.

However, these couples may decide that one ex-partner will provide assistance for the other. A judge may enforce the contract if the parties have included such commitments in a legitimate, written contract that is signed by both parties.

How a Cohabitation Agreement Can Help

A cohabitation agreement also known as a cohabitation contract or living together agreement, is a legal document that can provide valuable protection and clarity for unmarried couples who are living together in Washington State. While cohabitation itself is not legally recognized, a well-drafted cohabitation agreement can help in several ways

1. Defining Financial Responsibilities: A cohabitation agreement allows couples to outline their financial obligations during the relationship, including how they will handle shared expenses, joint debts, and financial contributions. This can prevent misunderstandings and disputes over money matters.

2. Property Rights and Division: Couples can use the agreement to specify the ownership of property brought into the relationship and acquired during the cohabitation. It can also set forth how property will be divided if the relationship ends, avoiding potential conflicts and costly legal battles.

3. Protecting Separate Property: The agreement can identify separate property that belongs exclusively to one partner, safeguarding those assets from being considered joint property.

4. Determining Support and Alimony: While Washington State does not recognize spousal support for cohabitating couples, the agreement can address financial support and other arrangements in case the relationship ends.

5. Child Custody and Support: For couples with children, the cohabitation agreement can outline child custody and support arrangements, providing stability and certainty for the children’s well-being.

6. Healthcare Decisions: The agreement can address medical decision-making and healthcare rights, enabling partners to make medical choices on each other’s behalf in the event of incapacity.

7. Dispute Resolution: The agreement can establish procedures for resolving disputes, such as mediation or arbitration, which may be less adversarial and costly than going to court.

8. Avoiding Default State Laws: Without a cohabitation agreement, unmarried couples may have their rights determined by default state laws, which may not align with their wishes or intentions.

9. Peace of Mind: Creating a cohabitation agreement promotes open communication about important issues, reducing potential conflicts and misunderstandings during the relationship.

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