February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

An Uncertain Exercise: The Statute of Limitations in a Committed Intimate Relationship

By Glenn MacGilvra


This article was written prior to publication of the recent case of In re Kelly and Moesslang,
170 Wn. App. 722, 287 P.3d 12 (Wash. App. Div. 3, September 18, 2012), which squarely addresses the issue of the statute of limitations applicable to Committed Intimate Relationships. The court held the proper period is three years, based on the limitations period generally used for equitable matters. This result contradicts some of the conclusions/proposals of the article. The Bar Bulletin was not informed of this recent case prior to publishing my article, and I apologize to anybody confused in the matter. If anybody has any questions about the issue, feel free to give me a call or send an email. - Glenn MacGilvra: Maccheerful@gmail.com.

In Washington, unmarried couples living together may constitute a "committed intimate relationship" (CIR).1 If a CIR breaks up, a member of the parting couple can bring an action to equitably divide property accumulated during their CIR, regardless of whose name is on the title. In this respect, a CIR has similar consequences for property rights as a marriage.

However, CIRs are a creation of case law, not statute or regulation. And so far, case law has not answered an important question: What is the statute of limitations for bringing an action to divide CIR property?

In a marriage, there is no deadline for dividing community property; spouses can muddle along separately for many years before one decides to actually file for divorce. During that time, both people jointly own the community property. Even when a divorce decree is entered, if some particular pieces of community property are not referenced in the decree, then that property is simply held by the couple as tenants in common. It will be divided at some future date when one or the other realizes it exists and wants it divided.2

But because the rules concerning CIR property are not clear, CIR partners have no such luxury. If one person's name is not on the title to relationship property, he or she does not know how quickly he or she must act following a breakup to protect their rights. The list of limitations periods at RCW ch. 4.16 does not provide a clear answer: of the long and varied list, more than one might apply to a CIR.

RCW 4.16.020(1) states an action for "recovery of real property, or for the recovery of the possession thereof" must be commenced within 10 years. The action is limited to those who "seized or possessed ... the premises in question." This provision applies only to real property and is open to anybody ousted from a piece of property.

If persons in a CIR acquire some form of ownership of real property because of the CIR, then this provision might apply. The principal question would be to determine when the clock starts ticking, i.e., what actions by the other party - presumably the one with title - put a party on notice that their property rights were in jeopardy.3

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