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The “Committed Intimate Relationship” Doctrine

Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 by John S. Palmer

The Washington Court of Appeals has held that an unmarried partner seeking an equitable division of property acquired during a “committed, intimate relationship” must bring a claim against the other partner within 3 years of the end of the relationship.

Bette Lyn Kelly and Peter Moesslang began living together in 1984. Bette sued Peter in October 2009, seeking an equitable division of assets acquired during the relationship, including real estate and business interests. She asserted that the relationship had ended in 2006, when she moved into a separate residence owned by Peter.

Peter moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it was barred by RCW 4.16.080(3), which generally requires that “an action upon a contract or liability, express or implied, which is not in writing, and does not arise out of any written instrument” must be brought within 3 years.

Washington does not recognize common-law marriage. However, it has adopted the “committed intimate relationship” doctrine (formerly known as the “meretricious relationship” doctrine), which “is a judicially created doctrine used to resolve the property distribution issues that arise when unmarried people separate after living in a marital-like relationship and acquiring what would have been community property had they been married.” The doctrine applies to both unmarried homosexual and heterosexual couples.

Courts employ a 3-prong analysis for dividing property after a committed intimate relationship terminates. First, it must determine that the parties had a “stable, marital-like relationship where both parties cohabit with knowledge that a lawful marriage between them does not exist.” In making this determination, the court will consider the length of the relationship, how long the parties lived together, the purpose of the relationship, whether the parties pooled resources, and the intent of the parties.

If a court finds that a committed intimate relationship existed, it will evaluate the interest each party has in the property acquired during the relationship and make a “just and equitable” division of that property.There is a presumption that property acquired during a committed intimate relationship belongs to both parties, but that presumption is rebuttable and the court look to RCW 26.09.080 (the statute outlining the factors to be considered when dividing property in a divorce proceeding) only for guidance if a party has failed to rebut the presumption.

Bette argued that the situation was analogous to a divorce in which the court fails to divide all the community property; in that situation, the parties continue to hold the property as joint owners and no cause of action accrues between the former spouses until one of them seeks sole dominion and control over the property, such as by ouster or adverse possession.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that a “committed intimate relationship” may be “marital-like”, but it is not the same thing as a marriage, and unlike marriage and divorce, which are matters of public record, a party asserting a claim under the doctrine must prove that the relationship existed. The court concluded that the situation was more analogous to other equitable claims that are subject to RCW 4.16.080(3), and that therefore “a party must sue to establish that the relationship existed within three years of the end of the relationship” in order to pursue a claim under the doctrine.

Kelly v. Moesslang, Court of Appeals Division III, Docket nos. 29210-0-III and 29746-2-III, decided September 18, 2012.

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