We’re Not Married: What Happens To Our Stuff If We Separate?

Washington has well-established laws for dealing with the separation of property during a divorce, including instructions to the court on how property should be divided. But increasingly many Washington residents are declining to get married, opting instead to live in relationships that are less formal.

For some these more legally informal relationships are no less serious or less committed than a marriage would be, they just lack the particular status that married couples have. Thus, when these types of partners choose to separate the same issues that arise with married couples, such as the division of property or dealing with children, must be dealt with in some sort of orderly or legal fashion.

In some states this is handled through common law marriages, but Washington state does not recognize common law marriages. Instead, it offers non-married partners the opportunity to separate their property through a legal proceeding if their relationship was sufficiently “marriage-like.”

Dividing Up Your Stuff in Lakewood

While courts are loathe to get involved in the intimate relationships of individuals, Washington courts will get involved in the division of assets where a couple in a committed relationship is separating and that relationship is sufficiently “marriage like.” Figuring out whether your relationship is marriage like requires looking at many different factors, including:

  • How long your relationship lasted
  • The purpose of the relationship
  • Whether you lived together and for how long
  • Whether you acted like a married couple
  • Whether you pooled your resources to handle joint expenses
  • Whether you made significant decisions as a couple

While these are important factors for a court to consider, they are not the only factors. Courts may look to the particular circumstances of any given relationship to determine whether it was sufficiently marriage-like such that the court should wade into the division of a couple’s assets.

Washington courts find the purpose and the intent of the relationship particularly important when evaluating whether your relationship was marriage-like. If you intended to live like a married couple but simply did not want the formality of marriage, or did not believe in it, it is more likely to address your property disputes.

Similarly, courts are also more likely to get involved where couples act like married couples in their dealings, including commingling funds, using joint bank accounts, making joint purchases, and working toward common financial goals.

It should be noted that marriage-like relationships can arise in both the heterosexual and homosexual context – the courts do not discriminate against either kind of relationship.

So We’re Marriage-Like – What Happens?

Assuming the courts have found your relationship sufficiently committed to requiring property division, the next step is how to undertake the actual dividing of your property.

As an initial step, the courts first look to the property that you brought into the relationship. It is presumed that this property remains yours throughout the course of the relationship and is yours after you separate. For example, if you inherited a cabin in the woods from your grandmother before you entered the relationship and both of you have been visiting that cabin, that cabin is still yours in most circumstances after the relationship is over.

Once the court takes care of previously owned property, it must turn to property that was acquired during the relationship. Unless you can show otherwise, the court will assume that property you acquired during the relationship is owned by both partners and must be divided in a way that is just and equitable.

Just and equitable does not always mean 50-50. In deciding what is just and equitable, courts will consider the separate assets available to each of the partners, the respective incomes and ages of the parties, or the partners’ separate debts.

Partners should also remember that the division of property is not only the division of assets that you both have, but also the division of debts. If you seek to establish a committed relationship so that you can have your property divided equally, or justly and equitably, you must also recognize that your debts will be divided similarly.

To the extent one partner incurred debts related to his or her separate assets, those debts should not be divided and should only be the responsibility of the incurring partner. But if debts were incurred by both of you or even one of you, for a common purpose, such as a car or home, vacation, or even living expenses, you will be expected to pay your fair share of such debts after separation.

Washington Attorneys Assisting You Through The Division of Assets

Separation can be a difficult and emotionally devastating process. While marriage has both its benefits and drawbacks, divorcing couples may often have it easier than those who are separating because the courts have created a more straightforward process to guide them through the division of their marital property. Separating couples who have not married do not always have this option and may be forced, instead, to battle over who is the technical legal owner of certain property.

Thankfully for those who have been in long and committed relationships for some time, a middle ground does exist. These couples can rely on the courts to help them divide their property as if they were married, as long as they can show that their relationship was sufficiently “marriage-like.”

At Blado, Kiger Bolan P.S., our family law attorneys can assist you at all steps in this process, whether trying to prove to their courts that your relationship was marriage like, arguing for a particular division of assets, or trying simply to tie up loose ends and move on. For more information, or to schedule an initial consultation, contact us online or at (253) 470-2356.

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