common law

Common-Law Marriage?

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While relationships are complicated, marriage is generally a black and white prospect: you either are or you aren’t. You’re not likely to forget a wedding, however big or small, right? The term common-law marriage gets thrown around when it comes to long-term relationships. We hear about it in celebrity couples all of the time; couples who have been together for years but never actually married. One question that comes up is: does Washington have common-law marriage?

What Is Common-Law Marriage?

Common-law marriage is a term many people have a vague familiarity with. We generally know it means that living with a partner for a certain number of years without actually marrying creates a kind of de facto marriages. It’s essentially marriage by default.

While that’s what it means in a broad sense, how it works from state to state varies. And it’s usually more complex than simply two people living together for a long time. With some variance, you both must be able to marry, live together, have intent, and essentially live as a married couple—share joint bank accounts, refer to each other as “husband” and “wife,” and things like that.

Does Washington Have Common-Law Marriage?

There are a lot of misconceptions about common-law marriage. Fortunately for Washington residents, state law makes it easier to grasp. Though the state recognizes common-law marriages from other states—in reality, only a few still embrace the custom—Washington itself does not allow the practice.

Just because Washington doesn’t recognize common-law marriage, that doesn’t mean you have no rights in cases of long-term relationships. This is something that comes up more and more frequently. Couples cohabitate before marriage at a higher rate than ever before. Many commingle finances and every other facet of their lives, much like in a marriage. It’s not even uncommon for couples to have and raise children without marrying.

Committed Intimate Relationships

Though Washington doesn’t allow common-law marriage, it does use the idea of Committed Intimate Relationships to impart legal rights for long-term relationships. Like common-law marriage, this pertains to relationships where couples live together in a way that approximates a marital union.

There’s no set criteria, but like common-law marriage, similar factors go into determining what is or isn’t a committed intimate relationship. When a couple lives together for years, pools resources, financial or otherwise, and generally enjoy the benefits of a marital relationship—companionship, support, and the rest—this often constitutes a committed intimate relationship.

This helps courts deal with legal and financial issues when one ends and distinguishes them from run-of-the-mill, temporary romantic relationships. In fact, in these situations, the process often mimics what you often see in divorce proceedings.

Division of Property

Because Washington doesn’t allow common-law marriage, the division of property can be tricky. In these cases, the courts only divide assets and debts in instances of committed intimate relationships. Once established, the courts split property similar to how it would in a divorce, though with some differences.

Washington is a community property state, which means it views all property acquired during a marriage as belonging equally to both parties. As we’re not talking about a marriage, the situation is somewhat different. Though courts do use similar reasoning for dividing property.

Courts use a fair and equitable standard when making this decision. They consider things like length of the relationship, the financial standing of each party, and more. This only applies to property acquired during the relationship. If you owned something before, it stays yours. The same goes for anything acquired as a gift or as an inheritance. That remains with whoever received it.

Child Custody

Parental rights and obligations don’t hinge on a marriage. It’s your status as a parent that matters, not the status of your relationship. Biological and adoptive parents have the same parental rights, regardless of whether they were married or not.

You can pursue child custody and visitation. If you have the majority of the time in the parenting plan, you have the right to child support. And you have the right to be part of your child’s life, unless circumstances dictate otherwise. All of the things that usually factor into a child custody battle in cases of divorce still pertain to unmarried couples.


Unmarried partners don’t inherit property when one party dies the same way married couples do. That said, even without a will, you may have options. If you can show that you were in a committed intimate relationship, you may be due an inheritance and other benefits. That said, without a will or marriage, your rights remain a bit limited in certain regards.

For instance, you aren’t eligible to collect Social Security based on your partner’s work record. Without a will or other documentation, you may not have the legal right to participate in health care decisions, have input in the burial, and other situations. You can have attorneys draft legal documents ensuring these things, but without them, you don’t automatically become entitled.

The short answer to the question of does Washington have common-law marriage is, no, no it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck when it comes to the end of a long-term relationship. This does create some additional pitfalls and hazards, but there are ways to cope with them.

If you have questions about protecting yourself in a long-term relationship, it’s likely in your best interest to talk to an experienced attorney. Feel free to contact Goldberg Jones at our Seattle office.

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