Not Married? Joint Property is Still Recognized by the Court

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The year was 2004. Pervez Musharraf received a vote of confidence confirming him as President of Pakistan. The Summer Olympics kicked off in Athens, Greece and captured the imaginations of canoeing enthusiasts everywhere. And from his lofty perch as then-head coach of the New York Jets, Herm Edwards gave us this pearl of wisdom:

Put your name on it.

While Coach Edwards was referring to taking accountability in journalism, we can use the same phrase to stress the importance of maintaining separate property. Many couples today are embracing alternatives to marriage, but still engaging in behavior similar to that of married individuals: sharing property and finances, for example. Some avoid marriage because of personal convictions; others may do so because they believe it would make any future breakup and subsequent property division “less messy” than a divorce proceeding. Oregonians in this latter category should take note: not so.

The landmark case Beal v. Beal was decided by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1978. In it, Oregon recognized for the first time property rights of certain cohabiters who live together without the benefit of a civil marriage. Oregon had previously held that these relationships, while attractive, had in reality no value or integrity and refused to participate in making a division of property under such circumstances. Beal, however, stands for the proposition that a division of property accumulated during cohabitation is appropriate under certain circumstances.

Generally, the courts look to the intent of the parties. If the parties explicitly intended that property acquired during cohabitation be jointly owned, then it will be subject to division. However, even where there is no explicit agreement, the property may still be divided. In these situations, the courts will examine the facts and attempt to draw inferences about the parties’ intent. Joint bank accounts or joint purchases, for example, may suggest an intent to share equally.

Later cases would extend this principle to couples who hold themselves out as married, such as describing themselves to others as “husband and wife.” Conversely, one party’s refusal to put the other’s name on the property is evidence of an intent to keep that property separate. Even where intent is not clear, however, the court is not precluded from exercising its discretion to reach a “fair” result given the circumstances.

If the court finds that the parties intended to pool their resources with respect to a given property, it will be divided according to the principles of cotenancy; that is, each party will receive a percentage interest that reflects his or her monetary contribution to the property. The property will be valued as of the time the parties separated.

If you are experiencing situations like these, the attorneys at SK&H are prepared to help you along the way.