Some people live together, have children, buy property together for years but never marry. Often, they feel it’s just a piece of paper. Or maybe they’ve been married before and don’t want to go through divorce again. You might be surprised to learn you might still have to get divorced—even if you never married.

The state of Washington recognizes “Committed Intimate Relationships” (CIR, formerly known as “common law marriages”) to protect committed couples who choose not to marry. This can help in a variety of ways, but it can also complicate a divorce.

What qualifies as a CIR?

Not all long-term relationships qualify as CIRs but many do. A court would look at the following:

  • How long were you together? Were you exclusive?
  • Did you live together? Or spend a significant amount of time apart?
  • How did you handle money? Did you co-own property? Did you have joint bank accounts?
  • Did others recognize you as a married or committed couple?
  • Are they or their family included in your estate plan?

Will you need a divorce?

If you wish to divide property, and a court determines you were in a CIR, you may have to undergo legal proceedings as if you were a divorcing married couple. This helps to protect both parties and expedite the legal process.

If you need legal assistance, it will benefit you to bring the following documents to the table:

  • Any cohabitation agreement, or a document like a pre/post-nuptial agreement
  • Your will
  • The deeds to any property
  • An overview of your financial situation and what, if any, property you co-own with your partner
  • Durable Power of Attorney (including Health Care Directives)
  • Any retirement savings or accounts

Even if you did not technically marry, it may not mean you can avoid a divorce. The state of Washington recognizes that relationships are complicated and do not always follow a traditional path. However, in the event of your separation you may need legal assistance to help settle what you are owed.