Marriage means different things to different people, but in the eyes of the law, it’s a binding contract between two people. A cohabitation agreement is a similar contract that offers unmarried couples a way to protect their property and provide a framework for the future if the relationship should end.
What Is a Cohabitation Agreement?
Cohabitation agreements, also called living together or non-marital contracts, outline the property each partner brings into the relationship. Like prenuptial agreements, these contracts are created at the beginning of the relationship or before a significant event (such as moving in together).
While the exact details of the contract depend on the couple, they typically include instructions for the following:
- The life of the relationship. These contracts set forth how bills will be paid, how much money will be distributed into joint accounts, and how each party’s debt will be handled. They usually contain property lists and the legal ownership of each item. Any items that should be treated as property owned by one partner only should be listed as well as the reasons why the property is to be kept separate.
- After the relationship ends. Establishing how property acquired before and during the relationship should be distributed if the couple breaks up is vital. Most agreements state that each party leaves with the property they acquired before marriage and stipulates a certain percentage of the shared assets. Couples may also include instructions for dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration. While couples can include preferences for child custody or visitation, family courts can overrule these decisions based on the best interests of the children.
- The ill health or death of a partner. The contract may include the creation of advanced health care directives or health care powers of attorney to allow each partner to make life-or-death decisions about the other in case of incapacity. It can also create a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship so the surviving partner will own the shared home if the other dies.
Could a Cohabitation Agreement Affect a Washington State Divorce?
Washington state doesn't have common law marriage, but it does recognize the property rights of partners in committed intimate relationships (CIR). If you or your partner acquired real estate, received an inheritance, or purchased high-value assets when you were in a committed intimate relationship, it’s possible that the court could order an equitable distribution of community property.
Even if you signed the document years ago, you should tell your Washington divorce lawyer if you and your partner ever created a cohabitation agreement. That way, your attorney can:
- Determine if the contract is valid. Most states recognize cohabitation agreements as long as they are executed using the proper legal requirements of contracts. If the cohabitation agreement is enforceable, your property can be distributed using contract law instead of dividing assets under divorce law. However, the agreement may not be valid if you and your partner created a cohabitation agreement but subsequently married.
- Use the agreement in negotiations. Even if a cohabitation agreement isn’t enforceable, the document was likely created at a less contentious time. It can remind you of the promises you made at the start of the relationship and serve as a starting point during property settlement negotiations.
- Get a full picture of your assets. As the years pass, a partner may forget the amount of income and effort they put forth to support the other. An equitable distribution of assets may not be fair if one partner brought more property or money into the relationship at the beginning. Similarly, sharing assets after separation might benefit a partner who has significantly more debt than the other. Looking back at your choices can also help you remember any high-value assets of family heirlooms you want to pass down through your family line.
Let a Washington State Divorce Attorney Advise You on Your Options
Call the Law Offices of Molly B. Kenny at 425-460-0550 today to arrange a private consultation, or read through our free guide, 9 Urban Myths about Divorce That Can Hurt You.