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Partnership protocols

Know your rights before moving in, experts warn

The proverbial “living in sin” isn’t just for the young. Baby boomers and seniors do it, too.

There are myriad reasons people live together but opt not to get married, especially older folks finding new love: retirement pensions, government benefits or grown children who aren’t cool with their parents remarrying and potentially jeopardizing their inheritance.

Young or old, if you opt to move in, legal experts warn that you should know your rights and the financial ramifications if the breakup happens.

“If you can’t talk about your finances before you move in together, don’t bother moving in,” warns Spokane family law attorney Amy Rimov.

In Washington, these nonmarital relationships – and their breakups – are defined a couple different ways by state law and the courts.

State law allows for registered domestic partnerships, while courts recognize lesser-known committed intimate relationships, formerly known as meretricious relationships.

Registered domestic partnerships are filed with the Secretary of State and give couples – primarily same-sex couples until the law changes June 30 – most of the same benefits as marriage.

The domestic partnership law also applies to heterosexual couples when one of the partners is 62 or older, giving them rights such as hospital visitation and participation in medical-care decisions. At month’s end, same-sex domestic partnerships will convert to marriages as the last piece of the 2012 voter-approved marriage equality law is enacted.

Beginning July 1, registered domestic partnerships will remain an option only for couples with one partner 62 or older, regardless of gender.

When couples – regardless of age – live together for at least three years in a marital-like relationship and accumulate property together, the courts often recognize these partnerships as committed intimate relationships. Unlike a registered domestic partnership or marriage, this case law doesn’t provide any benefits or health care or survivorship rights.

Instead, it’s only used in hindsight, when a long-term cohabitating couple breaks up and one of the partners wants to split the accumulated assets or debt. That means jointly acquired property, such as a house, can be divided in a civil case when the relationship ends. The same goes for joint debt, such as credit cards even if they aren’t in both partners names, Rimov said.

Often people aren’t aware of this long-standing case law and are surprised when a partner takes them to court after a breakup.

“It’s a rude awakening,” Rimov said. “They are surprised when they get an action against them when they’ve been living together for seven years.”

Family law attorney Christopher Fox, who publishes the Washington Family Law Reporter and is based in Kirkland, Washington, agrees.

“There are an awful lot of people who live together who don’t know this,” Fox said.

That’s why legal experts say it’s important for people to know their rights – and the stakes – when deciding to cohabitate. Couples of all ages also should consider estate planning.

According to the Legal Voice, a Seattle nonprofit that promotes legal rights for women in, estate planning can provide protections for surviving partners and minor children of unmarried partners. Among the estate-planning tools the group’s website lists are wills and revocable living trusts. There’s additional information on beneficiary information for life insurance and retirement benefits, annuities, and tax consequences. Other estate planning documents to consider are durable power of attorney for health care and finances, and advanced directives for health care and mental health.

Fox said the majority of separation cases stem from divorce, but there are the occasional legal dissolutions of domestic partnerships for seniors and civil cases in which property is split according to committed intimate relationship case law, which has evolved during the last 20 years.

If a couple lived together for years before their marriage, that period of committed intimate relationship also can be considered in splitting assets and debt during a divorce, Rimov said.

In 2013, there were 79 committed intimate relationship cases in Washington Superior Court out of the 39,993 total domestic cases filed, according to the Washington courts caseload report. Six of those cases were in Spokane County.

Through April this year, Washington Courts report 30 such cases, including two from Spokane County, out of 13,514 domestic cases filed.

Fox said these cases are rare because the filing partner can’t recoup legal fees or seek maintenance.

Currently in Washington there are 6,790 active registered domestic partnerships, according to the Secretary of State website. While it’s widely acknowledged that the bulk of those are same-sex couples who had taken advantage of the domestic-partnership law as their only recourse, the statistic doesn’t reveal how many of those couples are heterosexual or older than 62.

Registered domestic partnerships are making headlines as the state prepares to convert thousands of gay and lesbian partnerships to marriage on June 30. It will happen automatically for those couples unless they’ve already gotten married or legally dissolved their partnership..

Yet senior domestic partnerships, where one partner is 62 or older – gay or straight – are not affected by the upcoming conversion.

Lawmakers recognized, when drafting the initial domestic partnership law in 2003, that seniors have financial and family reasons for not getting married yet still want some of the benefits and protections of marriage, especially when it comes to health care and decisions about end-of-life care. The same-sex marriage act took this into consideration.

“We don’t want to force those people when they told us they can’t marry because of financial and family reasons,” said Pam Floyd, the director of the Corporations and Charity Division of the state Secretary of State Office.

The office keeps the domestic partnership registry; the state Department of Health is overseeing the conversions.

Even though the Secretary of State sent notices in January and again in March to everyone in the domestic partnership registry, the state and gay-rights advocates expect some people to get a real surprise when they learn they are legally married.

It’s anticipated that some same-sex couples have broken up and perhaps moved out of state without legally dissolving their partnerships.

Floyd said it’s up to the courts to decide what happens, but the state is willing to work with people who are taken by surprise with the conversions.

“We’ll take it case by case,” she said, adding when the notices first were mailed, the office received lots of inquiries.

“Mostly people were saying ‘Our domestic partnership ended two years ago but we didn’t do anything about it. It was over and we split.’ ”

Floyd said these couples should contact her office before the June 30 deadline and file for dissolution; after that it becomes a matter for the courts.

In 2003 when the initial domestic partnership law was passed, there was a peak of about 9,700 registered couples. Today, the state website shows that 1,184 domestic partnerships have been terminated, while 6,790 remain active. It’s the majority of those that will convert to marriage June 30.

Rimov said most of these soon-to-be newlyweds lived together for years as registered domestic partners and even before the law, meaning if they divorce, the courts will take their joint assets and debt into consideration for the duration of their cohabitation, not just the marriage.

“You have to know what’s happening to your finances (when you move in together,)” Rimov said. “You have to be able to understand your choices.”