Surviving a Committed Intimate Relationship – What Happens When Your Long-Term Partner Dies, But You Were Never Officially Married?

Women mourning the death of her partner whom she was in a committed intimate relationship with.

You built a life together. Lived in and improved the same home, shared your money, worked together to pay bills, invest, and maybe raise some kids. Then, tragically, your partner dies… without a will (called dying “intestate”). In Washington, only spouses or domestic partners get special intestate benefits like homestead exemptions and claims to 50% of the decedent’s separate property.

What happens to the house and the assets and the estate and legacy you built together?
Even though you were never married to each other, you are still entitled to half of the value of everything that was acquired during your Committed Intimate Relationship (often called a “CIR”).
Whether or not you have a CIR is dependent on the facts, but none are dispositive:

  • Did you cohabitate continuously and plan to do so for the long term (small breaks for reasons such as vacations or business trips are OK)?
  • Were either of you married to someone else during your relationship (if so, it will be hard to argue you had a CIR)?
  • Was the purpose of your relationship love, care support, sex, friendship, companionship, teaming up to raise kids or share resources? Even if not every one of these applies, the more that do, the more likely you had a CIR.
  • Was your relationship over a year? This is not a bright-line rule, but in Washington, the courts have not granted CIR status to relationships that have lasted less than a year… but yours might be the first!

If you have a CIR, then that means you and your partner started acquiring community property from the moment your CIR started to the moment it ended – either in separation or death. All assets (income, homes, cars, etc.), with just a few exceptions (specific inheritances, certain government benefits, etc.) acquired by either of you during you CIR count as a sort of joint property each of you completely controls legally, and you both have a claim to 50% of its value.

Therefore, when your relationship ends, you own 50% of the value of all assets acquired during the relationship. It is not owed to you, like a creditor – you already own it.

The fact that you already own the assets are important for probate. A surviving CIR partner is not a “Creditor.” He/she already owns 50% of community property. The only property that can be inherited by your former partner’s heirs are his/her share of the 50% of community property and their separate property acquired before your relationship.

Even if your partner dies with a will, your partner will only be able to bequeath their portion of the community property. The other 50% is yours.

That said, no one wants literally half a house. Inevitably you will need to resolve who owns what with the heirs of your partner. There are strict timelines for resolving CIR issues. If your CIR partner dies without a will, you should immediately engage with the heirs and, if they are threatening to deprive you of your property, seek legal counsel.

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."