If I had a magical megaphone that could transmit across the lower 48 states and I could climb to the top of Mount Rainier to broadcast, I would share an important message with every young woman in Washington state, and perhaps the entire U.S.: “Before you have a child with him, or before you make significant financial commitments like buying property or investing with him… please make sure he marries you.”
I want to emphasize that this advice is not driven by any Christian Right ideology about sexual purity or the risks of “living in sin,” although I do carry the emotional remnants of a Christian upbringing from my time in the deep South (Atlanta). Instead, this advice stems from a secular perspective, influenced by the principles of the post-Enlightenment era and the concerns expressed by Susan B. Anthony. It’s about ensuring that women are protected by the legal safeguards provided by marriage, so that they don’t face unfavorable outcomes in the event of divorce or separation.
Let me explain the two ways in which women face disadvantages when they are not married: the absence of a community property presumption and the inability for an economically disadvantaged woman to obtain financial assistance for legal representation.
In the state of Washington, when a woman is married, and a divorce is filed, there is a legal concept known as the community property presumption. This means that all property acquired during the marriage is presumed to be jointly owned. The only exceptions are property acquired prior to the marriage, gifts, or inheritances. Typically, community property is divided equally between the spouses.
However, this community property presumption does not automatically apply if the couple is not married. In such cases, the only possibility for a community property presumption is to prove to a court that the couple was engaged in a “committed intimate relationship.” However, this proof is not guaranteed, and simply living together for six months is insufficient to establish this relationship.
Furthermore, if a married couple divorces and the woman (or sometimes the man) lacks financial resources while the other party has substantial wealth, the court can order the wealthier person to cover the legal fees of the financially disadvantaged party. However, this option is not available to unmarried couples.