Conscious Coupling: What It Means to Be Married or in a Committed Intimate Relationship

You have a beautiful home, a fulfilling career, and a partner you love very much. You enjoy your life as it is-and you’re not in any rush to make your romantic relationship legally binding. However, you worry about a time when things may not be so rosy. If you and your significant other break up, what will happen to the life you built together?

As you consider your future-and the term you want to define you and your companion-learn about the rights and responsibilities involved with a marriage or a committed intimate relationship.

What Is Marriage?

Marriage usually conjures images of white tulle dresses, tiered cakes, and guests tearing up over sentimental vows. But your marriage involves a lot more than walking down the aisle and signing a license.

Once you and your partner say “I do,” the two of you commit to each other-as well as 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and responsibilities. These rights for married couples include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Visitation rights in jail or during a medical emergency
  • Responsibility to make medical decisions unless otherwise specified in a will
  • Permission to make funeral arrangements for a deceased spouse
  • Joint tax filing
  • Inheritance of some property, even without a will
  • Ability to claim Social Security, Medicare, disability, veteran’s, and similar benefits in behalf of a spouse
  • Spousal privilege during court cases, meaning you do not have to testify against your spouse

Due to these privileges and responsibilities, ending a marriage is more complex than your average breakup. A divorce, or a “dissolution of marriage” as the state of Washington refers to it, does not require proof of any wrongdoing, but you will have to wait at least 90 days from the time you file a petition to the time the court enters a final order for dissolution.

However, you will protect certain rights and assets because you were married to your spouse. The court will divide all property and debts between parties and determine whether you should receive spousal maintenance from your spouse. They will also define a “parenting plan,” which other states refer to as custody. The state decides who pays child support, who can claim dependent children on their taxes, and whether either party should be issued a restraining order.

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Since June 2014, only couples with one member age 62 or older can file for a domestic partnership. The state of Washington converted all previous domestic partnerships into marriages. This option assists older couples who may run into issues with their Social Security benefits and pensions if they were to marry.

Domestic partnerships end in a manner similar to marriages: you will need to file a petition, and the court will authorize a fair division of property and debts.

What Is a Committed Intimate Relationship?

Several U.S. states still practice “common law marriage.” The court will grant certain marriage benefits, such as inheritance of property after one partner dies, if the couple has lived together for a significant (but undefined) amount of time and presents themselves as a married couple.

Washington does not recognize common law marriage. So what happens if you and your long-time partner split or if one of you passes away without that marriage license? The court may consider your coupling a “committed intimate relationship” if:

  • You live in the same home as a couple.
  • You have been together exclusively for a long period of time.
  • You have children together.
  • You create wills together, make significant purchases together, or keep joint accounts.
  • You enjoy the emotional benefits of a married couple, such as mutual support, companionship, and love.

It doesn’t matter if you and your significant other could get married. If the court confirms one or more of these factors and deems the situation a committed intimate relationship, the court could help you divide assets and liabilities.

The court will divide community property and debts, or property and debts acquired during the relationship. Aside from property obtained before or after the relationship, exceptions include property you inherited or received as a gift. You must seek an equitable division of property within three years of the end of the relationship.

Remember that a committed intimate relationship is different from a marriage. People in these relationships are not entitled to:

  • Spousal maintenance, or alimony
  • A share of the partner’s government benefits
  • A share or inheritance of separate property and debts
  • Reimbursement for attorney fees while enforcing rights as part of this relationship

Finally, the court can step in once again if you and your partner have children together who are under age 18. They may set up a parenting plan or order child support.

Talk with Your Partner and Decide What’s Right for Your Family

Families today come in all shapes and sizes. Though marriage does present a lot of benefits, don’t let anyone pressure you into taking on that title. Make the decision that’s best for you and your partner. If you have legal questions no matter the stage of your relationship, contact an attorney specializing in family law.


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