Committed Intimate Relationships and Cohabitation Agreements

Although the concept of “common law” marriage is not recognized in Washington state, through case law courts have developed the concept of partners in a “committed intimate relationship” (CIR).  Formerly known as “meretricious relationships,” a CIR is a stable, marital-like relationship where both partners cohabit with knowledge that a lawful marriage between them does not exist.

Courts will consider the following factors in determining whether a CIR exists between partners:

  1. Continuous cohabitation;
  2. Duration of the relationship;
  3. Purpose of the relationship;
  4. Pooling of resources and services for joint projects; and
  5. The intent of the parties.

As with a dissolution (divorce) or legal separation proceeding, a court has the authority to divide the assets and liabilities acquired during a CIR relationship once it has ended.

However, there are several significant differences between a CIR and a dissolution or legal separation.  While attorney fees can be awarded in a dissolution action if one partner has a need and the other has the ability to pay, attorney fees cannot be awarded in a CIR case.  Additionally, a court cannot award spousal support (alimony) to one partner or the other in a CIR situation.  Finally, there is a 3-year statute of limitations to bring a property division action based on a CIR – you must bring a lawsuit within three years of the end of the relationship to establish that it existed for the purpose of having the court determine the division of property.

Partners may prevent a CIR from changing their property rights by entering into a mutual agreement, commonly referred to as a “living together” or cohabitation agreement. Like a prenuptial agreement, a cohabitation agreement allows the partners to agree in advance as to the effect of their relationship and the consequences should it end on each partner’s property. However, courts carefully review cohabitation agreements and will only enforce those that meet specific substantive and procedural requirements.

Consult with an attorney if you believe you are in a CIR, or if you and your partner wish to protect your rights through a cohabitation agreement.