Property Distribution in Washington Committed Intimate Relationship Case Must Be Just and Equitable

Washington family law recognizes the Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR) doctrine, which was judicially created to resolve the property distribution issues of unmarried couples who had acquired property that would have been community property if they had been married.  If a court determines there was a CIR, the court must make a just and equitable distribution of the community-like property acquired during the CIR.

A party must file a petition to distribute property acquired during a CIR within three years of the date the CIR ends.  In a recent case, a mother challenged the property distribution, arguing it was unjust and inequitable and that the father had filed the petition after the statute of limitations had passed.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the couple started dating in 2004 and moved in together in 2005.  In 2011, a house was purchased in the mother’s name with only her name on the mortgage.  In 2012, the couple’s son was born. In 2016, the mother went to Mexico with the son.  According to the mother, the locks on the house were changed when she got back.

In November 2016, the father filed a Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR) petition. He claimed the parties’ CIR ended on August 19, 2016.  He claimed the mother sold him her share of the house and he had a check showing the payment.

The mother stated she bought the house and made the down payment from her own money without any contribution from the father.  She also claimed the relationship ended in 2012, but the parties kept living together to save money.  She argued the statute of limitations for the CIR petition had expired before the father filed it.

At trial, the father argued the couple had split the down payment.  He introduced deposit slips he said reflected the money he gave the mother for the down payment.  The mother testified she had not received the $6,000 reflected on the deposit slips and that amount was different from the down payment amount.  She testified she made the down payment from her own savings. She testified he contributed to the monthly mortgage payment and she covered the bills, food, and other expenses.  The father, however, said he contributed household expenses “[a]ll the time.”

The father formed a company with his brother in 2007.  The mother testified she loaned the father and his brother $6,000 when they started the company and had sometimes helped at worksites.  She claimed the check the father gave her was to repay that loan and $2000 she sent his family.  The father denied the existence of a loan and that she ever helped at a work site.

The mother and her daughter each testified the couple broke up in 2012, though they identified different months.  The mother testified she moved her things upstairs and the father moved his downstairs.  The father’s niece testified she thought they broke up when the father moved out in 2017.  The father did not testify regarding the date of the break-up.  He testified he renovated the house when the mother left in 2016.

The trial court found the CIR began on June 28, 2005 and ended on August 19, 2016.  The trial court also found the house was community property, awarded it to the father, and ordered the mother to sign a quit claim deed.  The trial court also ordered each party to pay the debts in their own name.

The mother moved for reconsideration, arguing the court’s awarding the house to the father while giving her the mortgage debt was inequitable.  She argued she should have received more than half of the real property because of the income disparity.  The father asked the court to award the home as his separate property, but to give her a 50% share of its equity.  He also requested six months to get his own loan.

The trial court denied the mother’s reconsideration motion and she appealed, arguing the court erred in finding the CIR petition had been filed timely.

The appeals court noted the couple’s child was born in late 2012 and they lived together until 2016.  The appeals court also pointed out there was evidence the father had contributed to household expenses and others continued to consider them a couple beyond 2012.

A party may terminate a CIR unilaterally, but must do so unequivocally for the statute of limitations to begin to run.  The appeals court found the mother offered no evidence the father understood she intended to end the relationship just because they moved into different bedrooms.  The appeals court found no error in the trial court’s finding the mother failed to prove the statute of limitations had run.

The mother also argued the property distribution was not just and equitable.

The appeals court found the testimony about the parties’ contributions toward the house, mortgage, company, and household expenses was “wildly contradictory.” The trial court failed to indicate how it resolved those factual disputes or to making any findings regarding the value of the assets.  The appeals court noted it was clear in this case the distribution was not just and equitable, even without findings.  The trial court awarded one party the assets and the other party the debt.  There was no evidence supporting this difference and the father acknowledged he should have received the debt with the house.  The appeals court therefore found the trial court abused its discretion by making a manifestly unreasonable distribution.

The appeals court also identified another reason for reversal. Only property and debts that would have been characterized as community property and debts if the parties were married may be distributed in a CIR distribution.  The court must, therefore, characterize property and debt before distributing it.  The trial court failed to characterize either the mortgage or the father’s interest in the company.

There is a rebuttable presumption that property acquired during a CIR is community-like property.  Property or debt being in just one party’s name is not sufficient to rebut the presumption.  The appeals court instructed the trial court to apply the rebuttable presumption to both the mortgage and the father’s interest in the company on remand.

The appeals court found the father’s CIR petition was timely, but reversed and remanded to the trial court to characterize and distribute the property and debts.

This case shows how complex a CIR distribution may be.  If you are ending a serious relationship involving shared property, you need the advice of an experience Washington family law attorney.  Call (206) 622-6562 to schedule an appointment with Blair & Kim, PLLC.

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