Washington law recognizes “committed intimate relationships,” (“CIRs”) and allows courts to equitably distribute property when people separate after living together in a marriage-like relationship and acquiring property that would have been considered community property if they were lawfully married. In determining if a CIR existed, courts consider a number of factors, including the parties’ intent, the length of the relationship, whether the parties cohabited continuously, whether they pooled their resources for joint projects, and the purpose of the relationship. In a recent case, a mother appealed a trial court’s judgment that she had not been in a CIR with her child’s father.
According to the appeals court’s opinion, the mother and her young child lived in a rental when the parties met. The father owned his home and several acres, as well as a rental home. The parties agreed to date exclusively in October or November of 2011. The mother told the father she was pregnant in April 2012. The mother claimed they had agreed to have a child, but the father denied discussing or wanting a child before the pregnancy.
The father claimed the mother wanted to live together because she was having difficulty paying her bills after changing jobs. He said he thought it was too soon, but felt pressured due to the pregnancy and the mother’s expenses. The trial court found they started living together around June 2012.
The child was born in January 2013. The mother went back to school later that year, and ultimately obtained a Bachelor’s degree.
The father alleged he did not share finances with the mother because of her gambling and alcohol issues. The parties did not have joint bank accounts and the mother did not pay toward the utilities or the mortgage. She testified she paid toward household expenses, groceries, and daycare.
The father purchased another rental home in 2016 with a loan from his retirement plan. The mother testified she “pick[ed] out everything” for the new rental, but the father said she had not contributed either work or money toward the property.
He stated he did not want to marry or “be in a long-term relationship thing” throughout the relationship. When the father suggested the mother move out, she raised the issue of a CIR. The father subsequently presented her with a “non-CIR” cohabitation agreement in 2018. She refused to sign it and moved out later that year.
The mother served the father with a petition for a parenting plan and child support, and soon thereafter filed a petition for dissolution of a CIR. In 2022, she requested division of the property acquired in the father’s name during the relationship. The father denied the existence of a CIR.
In an oral ruling, the trial court determined the parties had been in a CIR but ruled that the parties should each “tak[e] what they had.”
The trial court found they “loved each other and they cared for each other” but the father had made a “purposeful decision” not to get married . The trial court also found the parties had not pooled their resources, shared bank accounts, or jointly purchased vehicles.
The trial court made a number of findings. In the written order, it concluded the parties were not in a CIR, but that the division of property would be the same even if they were. The trial court concluded “[i]t would be inequitable” to order a different division of assets than what the parties established during their relationship. The trial court therefore ordered the parties to keep the property and debts in their own names.
The mother appealed, arguing the trial court erred in concluding the parties were not in a CIR. She further argued the trial court was required to apply equitable principles in dividing the property.
The mother challenged several factual findings, but the appeals court concluded that they were supported by substantial evidence.
The trial court made findings relating to the relevant factors and concluded the parties were not in a CIR. The trial court found the parties cohabited for about six years, which was supported by both parties’ testimony. This factor weighed in favor of finding a CIR. The trial court also found the parties had been in a relationship for more than seven years, which also tended to show the parties were in a CIR.
Relevant to the purpose of the relationship, the trial court found the parties loved and cared for each other and had and raised a child together. Although the mother suggested the relationship’s purpose was for the parties to be a family, the father testified the purpose was “dating.” He testified their “only bond” was their child. The appeals court concluded that neither the record nor findings indicated there was a CIR based on the purpose factor.
The trial court also made findings the parties had intentionally not pooled their resources. The court found the mother had quit her job because the daycare costs for both children would have taken her income. The trial court found they had not pooled resources, shared bank accounts, or purchased vehicles together. Although the mother had contributed to some expenses, that was not sufficient to show a significant pooling of resources under Texas case law. There was no evidence in the record the parties jointly acquired assets.
The mother argued they had to pool “time, money, and energy” to raise children and advance their careers. The appeals court disagreed, however, concluding the trial court’s findings and evidence did not indicate the parties had jointly contributed resources in a way that would justify dividing the property equitably.
Although the mother testified they intended to be a family, she acknowledged the father had delayed the issue of marriage. He testified the purpose of the relationship was “dating.” He also said the relationship was “extremely toxic” and that he had been clear he did not want to be married to or in a long-term relationship with the mother. The trial court found he was clear in his intent not to marry the mother and that the mother stayed in the relationship knowing that. The appeals court acknowledged the mother may have wanted to be in a CIR, but noted mutual intent determines whether there was a CIR. The record supported a determination there was not mutual intent to be in a CIR.
Although two of the factors weighed in favor of a CIR, those factors were not dispositive when other factors supported a conclusion otherwise. The appeals court found no error in the trial court’s conclusion the parties were not in a CIR. Without a CIR, the trial court does not have the authority to divide the property acquired during the relationship equitably. Pursuant to Washington case law, a court’s oral ruling is not binding if it is not formally incorporated into the court’s findings, conclusions, and judgment, so the appeals court rejected the wife’s argument the trial court was required to equitably divide the property based on the oral ruling. The appeals court therefore found the trial court had not erred in ordering the parties to retain their own property and debts and affirmed the judgment.
The existence of a CIR is very fact specific. If you are ending a long-term co-habiting relationship, an experienced Washington family law attorney can advise you on your rights and your options. Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 for a consultation.