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Protecting Property in Romantic Relationships
April 26, 2015

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage. Well, not these days: Somewhere between love and marriage, they move in together.

We all know marriages to be the ultimate financial entanglement, and that this financial entanglement can make for some nasty divorces. Courts must split the assets and debts “fairly” between the separating spouses. “Fairness” in divorces is often not obvious.

What many do not know is that the financial entanglement can begin before marriage and can ensnare couples who separate before they are ever married. Couples moving in together often consider their relationship to be trial marriages. They begin to pool resources, to blur ownership lines, to assume that their relationship will never end, and to not plan for that possibility. The ending of such a relationship can be just as difficult as the dissolution of a marriage.

The first step in preventing a problem is to be conscious of what is his, hers, and theirs. (Of course, the advice in this article applies just as well to same-gender couples.) Keeping separate accounts and being clear on purchases and ownership make it easier to separate if the relationship does not work. When partners decide to own something together, they should decide what will happen to that asset if they decide to separate. The couple should pay as much attention to debts as to assets. Communication is the key.

Unfortunately, this consciousness about the couple’s assets and debts is not necessarily enough. Washington recognizes a concept called the “committed, intimate, relationship,” or “CIR.” This concept applies to romantic relationships in which the couples lives together, are exclusively devoted to each other, pool resources, and are relatively long-term (certainly years, not months). A CIR is considered like a marriage in that the couple generates wealth that is shared between the partners. That wealth may come from the partners’ paychecks or from their labor in improving assets like their home. Even if a partner keeps her earned money in a separate account and keeps her assets titled in her name, the other partner could make a claim to a share of those assets in the event that the relationship is later determined to be a CIR.

When a couple is serious enough that the partners are living together and pooling their resources, even if not pooling all of their resources, the couple should consider a written agreement on their property. This agreement is akin to a prenuptial agreement in that it can determine who has rights to property during the relationship and what happens to the property if the couple were to split. Of course, a lawyer-drafted agreement is the best. But, just writing down the terms of the agreement and signing it may be enough to avoid a nasty disagreement later.

Written agreements between romantic partners are not all that romantic. Married spouses usually do not make such agreements simply because they do not want to contemplate the marriage ending in divorce. But at least spouses know that the end of their marriages would be difficult. Unmarried partners should know this too.

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This website provides general information to the public on legal issues. These informational materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You should contact Brandli Law for advice on specific legal problems.

Brandli Law PLLC * One Front Street North, Ste. D-2 * PO Box 850, Friday Harbor, WA 98250 * (360) 378-5544