Washington Court Finds Couple Not in Committed Intimate Relationship Prior to Marriage

In Washington, the Committed Intimate Relationship (“CIR”) doctrine protects the interests of certain unmarried individuals when they end a committed relationship. This doctrine assists in the resolution of property distribution when certain unmarried couples separate.  A CIR occurs when a couple has a marriage-like relationship but know that they are not lawfully married.  Courts consider certain factors to determine if a couple had a CIR, including the relationship’s length, its purpose, continuous cohabitation, pooling of resources and services, and the parties’ intent. Connell v. Francisco. In a recent Washington divorce case, the husband challenged the court’s characterization of certain property as separate by alleging the parties were engaged in a CIR prior to their marriage.

According to the appeals court’s unpublished opinion, the parties started dating in 2006 and moved in together in early 2009.  Each of them moved away for a while during the relationship.

The wife claimed their relationship was “rocky” because of infidelity, but both parties stated they never broke up while they were dating.

In 2012, they had a symbolic ceremony, but the husband did not want to actually get married.  Later that year, the wife bought a home in only her name, using an inheritance for the down payment.  The husband had acted as the real estate agent and received a commission.  He would have been statutorily required to disclose any interest he had in the purchase, but did not do so.

The parties moved into the home together, with the wife paying the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and home improvements. The husband paid rent to the wife and also paid her half of the other expenses. The husband and a friend did, however, install the flooring and patio, but there was no evidence regarding the cost of the improvements or if they increased the home’s value.  The husband was never added to the deed.

The parties held themselves out as married at a reception in 2013.  People believed they were getting married.

The parties actually did get married in May 2017 so the husband could live with the wife in Korea where she was starting a job with the Department of Defense.  The wife had to go to Korea alone, however, because the husband had a pending criminal charge at the time.

The husband signed a rental agreement to stay in the house that August.  He deposited the checks into the wife’s account.  The parties ended their relationship later that year.

The wife listed the house for sale in 2018 with the husband as the listing agent.  He filled out the paperwork with the wife listed as owner and him as tenant, with no disclosure he had any ownership interest.  He said, however, he thought he had an interest in the property. He had not suggested they use another agent because they would be able to split his commission if he sold the house.  He did not have any ethical concerns with this arrangement.

Another agent was ultimately responsible for the sale of the house.  The proceeds from the sale were put in trust until the divorce was resolved.

The trial court found there was no CIR. This determination was primarily based on a lack of pooled resources.  Based on the parties’ behaviors, the court also inferred there was a lack of commitment. The court considered infidelity, a lack of stability, and failure to plan for the future.  The court found the proceeds from the sale of the house were the wife’s separate property and distributed them to her.  The court also held alternatively that if there were a CIR, the husband would not be entitled to the proceeds from the house.

The husband appealed, arguing he had an equitable interest in the property because the parties were in a CIR when it was purchased.

The appeals court considered the Connell factors.  The trial court’s finding they had cohabited for several years was not in dispute.  The parties only dispute as to the duration of the relationship was at what point in 2017 it ended.  The trial court found the purpose of the relationship to be between “friends with benefits” and marriage.  The appeals court noted the trial court’s findings were supported by substantial evidence that they had not engaged in long-term planning with regard to finances or the future.  Their behavior did not indicate commitment.

The appeals court also found the record supported the trial courts finding the parties had not pooled their resources.  They did not have joint accounts or debts.  There was evidence the husband had paid rent to the wife.  The trial court found his claims otherwise were not credible or supported by evidence.

There was no direct evidence of intent of commitment.  The trial court weighed the fact of the spiritual wedding ceremony and representation they were married against the parties’ other behavior, including not pooling resources, not planning for the future, not discussing children, and not naming each other in their respective wills and insurance policies. The appeals court found the trial court’s finding that the intent of the parties was to enjoy each other’s company without committing long-term was supported by substantial evidence.

The trial court also considered whether the parties were committed beyond a mere “intimate relationship.” The court looked to the infidelity of both parties and the nature of the relationship to find there was not a CIR.

The appeals court found there was substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s determination there was no CIR between the parties before their marriage.  The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The determination of whether a Committed Intimate Relationship exists is very fact-dependent.  Although the courts did not find a Committed Intimate Relationship existed in this case, slightly different facts could have resulted in a different outcome.  If you are separating from a long-term committed relationship, whether you are married or not, a skilled Washington family law attorney can advise you of your rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562.


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