Washington family law recognizes committed intimate relationships, which are stable relationships where the parties cohabit knowing that they are not lawfully married. It is an equitable doctrine, intended to protect unmarried partners who acquire property during the relationship. Before distributing property under the doctrine, the court must first determine whether there is a committed intimate relationship, based on the circumstances of the case with consideration of a number of factors. If there is a committed intimate relationship, the court must next evaluate the parties’ respective interest in the property acquired during the relationship. Then, the court must distribute the property in a just and equitable manner.
A woman recently sought relief under the committed intimate relationship doctrine for property acquired after she reunited with her husband following a legal separation. The parties legally separated in 2002, resulting in an agreed judgment and decree of legal separation in California. They got back together instead of following through with a divorce at that time. However, they still divided their assets and the father paid child support and spousal maintenance in accordance with the California order.
They stayed together for several years, but separated again in early 2020. The wife petitioned for an equitable distribution of the property acquired after the separation order under the committed intimate relationship doctrine. The husband moved to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim, arguing they were still married. The trial court ultimately dismissed the petition, finding the wife could not pursue a committed intimate partnership claim because the parties were married.
The wife appealed. She argued the trial court erred in dismissing her petition. She argued the fact they were legally married did not preclude her from pursuing a claim under the committed intimate relationship doctrine and that marital status was just a factor to be considered.
The appeals court found the committed intimate relationship doctrine does not apply when the parties are married and therefore does not apply to the division of the parties’ assets. The trial court did not err in dismissing the wife’s petition.
The wife argued that dismissing her petition would leave her without a remedy to resolve her interest in property the husband acquired since 2003. The appeals court, however, found she did have a remedy. She could either seek relief from the original decree if she could make a proper showing or otherwise petition for divorce in the proper jurisdiction and address maintenance and distribution through motions in that case. Because the wife has a remedy under the family law statutes, courts would generally not allow her an equitable remedy.
The appeals court also pointed out in a footnote that the wife had received a distribution of marital assets, child support, and spousal maintenance under the separation agreement. She had also agreed that any assets obtained after December 2001 would be “separate property.”
The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the wife’s claim.
Reuniting can be wonderful for a couple, but it can present legal complications regarding property distribution if they subsequently break up again. If you are anticipating a separation after reuniting following a legal order or decree, a skilled Washington family law attorney can advise you on your rights and your options. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation to discuss your case.