Recent legal developments in Washington State affect the treatment of finances and property
Historically, Washington State has not recognized common-law marriage. But recent developments have put the focus on “committed intimate relationships,” which affects how you handle estate planning and property acquisitions as an unmarried couple. These new legalities replace the previous term, “meretricious relationships.”
Beyond the change in terminology, the doctrine spells out key information on how committed, unmarried couples should handle community property and plan for their financial future.
How Courts Determine Whether a Relationship Is Intimate and Committed
For legal purposes, the committed intimate relationship designation depends on several factors, most notably continuous cohabitation. In addition, the courts may use the following criteria, as established in Connell v. Francisco:
- The duration of the relationship (usually from the date in which both parties move in together)
- The purpose of the relationship
- How each party pools their resources in the relationship (e.g., joint checking accounts, shared expenses for groceries, etc.)
- Each party’s intent
However, each of the above criteria is difficult to prove, particularly “intent,” when one party passes away. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals ruled that even when a domestic partnership affidavit exists only for insurance benefits, it can still serve as evidence of a significant relationship.
To date, no court in Washington State has found the existence of a committed intimate relationship where all five factors in Connell v. Francisco were not met, making it even more critical for unmarried couples to protect their personal and shared assets.
The unequivocal desire of one party to end the relationship is enough to overcome the “intent” part of the test.
The bottom line is that cases are handled based on their unique facts. Of course, this reality leaves much open to interpretation. Planning ahead can prevent much back-and-forth and legal expenses.
How a Committed Intimate Relationship Affects Estate Planning
Couples that are in a committed relationship enjoy the same protection as married couples when it comes to community property. Property includes salary and wages earned during the committed relationship. When a relationship ends, either by separation or death, assets collected during the relationship are distributed in much the same way as those of married couples.
However, challenges can arise without proper planning. For example, in the event of the death of one party, questions may arise regarding who owned what property, making it difficult to transfer ownership.
If you’re in an unmarried committed intimate relationship, it’s crucial to understand your property rights under Washington State’s committed relationship doctrine and how to avoid any confusion regarding the way assets should be divided upon separation or death.
Agreeing to the Status of a Property
Either party in a committed relationship can draft an official agreement regarding the character of their property. This may look like a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that spells out each partner’s assets they brought into the relationship, as well as jointly owned property.
For jointly owned property, it’s wise to take ownership a step further. Ensure that both names appear on the title or that each party’s will gives the other party their interest in a property.
Clear Language Expressing No Intent to Create Property Rights
If one member of the party decides not to create property rights within the relationship, they should document their decision in a written agreement. In this case, title property accordingly and distribute it according to the terms of a will. Without a will expressing intention, the courts may use the criteria above to determine the other party’s claim to property.
Planning Ahead Is Better Than Litigating
In the absence of common-law marriage, unmarried partners in Washington State may not realize the legal status of their property.
Under state doctrine, however, couples should understand the presumptions that give their partner certain rights to property acquired during the relationship. Without making each party’s intentions clear in the form of a will or written agreement, uncertainty can lead to costly litigation to determine property rights in the event of a death or separation.
Preparation is an essential preventative, regardless of how you view shared property, and it shouldn’t be left to chance. Work with a professional to create the documentation you need to protect your assets to the satisfaction of both parties. Contact our estate planning team today to build confidence in your future together.
Mary Louden, JD, LLM is the director of estate planning at Brighton Jones.
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