What we owe each other – Property and money implications of live-in romantic partners

Washington Couple Living Together in a Committed Intimate Relationship

There are many personal reasons why people may wish to be in a live-in romantic situation without being married. But if you think you are avoiding the legal and property complications of marriage…  think again. Even though “common law marriage” is not a thing in Washington, there may be surprise shifts in money between you two when it ends; even if you never say “I do.” Do not discover that your boyfriend suddenly owns half your house, or your girlfriend half your retirement. If you plan now, you can control what happens later. If you are moving in with an intimate partner, get a Cohabitation Agreement.

It is very common for couples to avoid the topic of “breaking up” as if it is an evil spirit – if you mention it, it might appear! One of the few guarantees a family law attorney can make is this:

Your relationship WILL end due to either a break-up or death; those are the only two options for the future.

Hopefully, far into the future. But time flies when you are having fun. Often intimate relationships are like sleeping on a bus – before you know it, you are in a different place. If your relationship has some of the characteristics below, congratulations! You are no longer “just dating.” – you may be in a Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR):

  • You cohabitated continuously and planned to do so for the long term.
  • Neither of you were married to anyone else during your relationship (a CIR can still exist between you though; this is just a factor).
  • The purpose of your relationship is love, care, support, sex, friendship, companionship, teaming up to raise kids, or sharing resources (the more of these that apply, the more likely you have a CIR.)
  • You lived together over a year (and especially if you lived together over five years).

If you break up without a prior agreement, and either one of you successfully convinces the court you were in a CIR, all of the value either of you acquired during the CIR will be presumed jointly owned- 50/50.

Imagine this scenario: Pat moves in with Riley because they love each other and want to share a home. They never plan what will happen if they break up. After they move in, Pat buys a house in Pat’s name alone and they move into that residence. Riley had a 401K before the relationship and continues to contribute to it throughout their relationship. They support each other, sharing bills, doing house projects, and basically acting as a “married” couple, even though they keep separate bank accounts and own nothing jointly. Five years later, things get rocky between them. They decide to split up and Riley moves out.

At this point, if either Riley or Pat proves to a court that a CIR existed:

  1. Riley probably has a 50% ownership interest in the house, even though Riley’s name was never on it.
  2. Pat probably has a 50% ownership interest in the increase in Riley’s 401K since they moved in (both the contributions and the gains caused by those contributions).
  3. Both of them walk away from the relationship with less of their personal wealth than they would have if they had never moved in together… because they failed to plan.

The best way to avoid this scenario is with a Cohabitation Agreement. You can work together as a couple to explicitly define the boundaries of your relationship – who is responsible for what, and who owns what. The agreement should also address what will happen if the relationship ends.

Planning on how you may break up prevents break ups!

The threat to your lifestyle and security will be a nagging fear at the back of your brain during every bad argument. When the end is nigh, it will be a distracting weight on your shoulders; worrying about what will happen. Will we need to go to court? Will I be left on the streets? Will my life-long work building assets be destroyed? What will the court decide? These are scary questions that are in every person’s head when they blithely move in with someone and then need to consider moving out.

If you plan for that possible future, (now in the present while you still like each other) those dark clouds of anxiety will not have a chance to form. Creating your end-game rules as a couple can be a fun and bonding activity. It will demonstrate respect and wisdom to each other. You can even prevent a CIR from “forming” while still living together. Your relationship should be designed by you and your partner(s), not the courts or the legislature.

When it’s signed, you can put it in a drawer, leave it with an attorney, and never worry about it again. For the rest of your committed intimate relationship, you only need to focus on your commitment, intimacy, and relationship. You will stay together because you want to stay together, not to avoid scary financial consequences. Stay because of love, not fear. 

Do not attempt to write it without an attorney! Your agreement will need to stand up to the cold hard stare of the Court to be effective.  Pick a Washington family lawyer who has experience with CIRs and custom-tailored relationships – keeping them legally sound and healthy until the end. Hopefully, for as long as you both shall live.

Washington Family Law Attorney Walton Dabney

Attorney Walton L. Dabney

"My pronouns are He/Him, and I am a family lawyer. I am a champion for non-traditional families. I create constructs of agreements to ensure any adult can partner with any other adult(s) to create the living situation they choose and raise their children how they wish – while maintaining legal rights and protections."