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In re Sutton

March 25, 1997

IN RE THE MERETRICIOUS RELATIONSHIP JANICE SUTTON, RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT, AND GARY WIDNER, APPELLANT.


Appeal from Superior Court of Kittitas County. Docket No: 94-3-00148-1. Date filed: 03/27/95. Judge signing: Hon. Michael E. Cooper.

Petition for Review Denied September 3, 1997,

Authored by Dennis J. Sweeney. Concurring: John A. Schultheis, Stephen M. Brown.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sweeney

SWEENEY, C.J. In In re Marriage of Lindsey, 101 Wash. 2d 299, 302, 304, 678 P.2d 328 (1984), this state abandoned the presumption that all property acquired by a man and woman not married to each other but living together was not community property. We replaced that presumption with a rule "that courts must 'examine the [[meretricious__ relationship and the property accumulations and make a just and equitable Disposition of the property.'"

Id. at 304 (quoting Latham v. Hennessey, 87 Wash. 2d 550, 554, 554 P.2d 1057 (1976)). In this case we are asked to decide whether the trial court's Conclusion that the relationship between these parties was meretricious is supported by its findings. We conclude that it is. We are also asked in Janice Sutton's cross-appeal to decide whether the trial court abused its discretion in distributing the property accumulated during this meretricious relationship. We conclude that it did not and affirm the trial court's judgment.

FACTS

Gary Widner and Janice Sutton met in September 1988. Between that date and April 1989, they stayed at each other's homes regularly. In April 1989, Mr. Widner moved in with Ms. Sutton. Prior to their relationship, Mr. Widner bought property. He and Ms. Sutton planned and built a home on that property. They lived together until August 1994 when the relationship soured.

Between April 1989 and August 1994 both Mr. Widner and Ms. Sutton lived together, socialized as a couple with friends and family, worked together, and had an intimate relationship. Property and banking accounts, however, were kept separate.

Discussion

Existence of Meretricious Relationship. A meretricious relationship is a stable, marital-like relationship where both parties cohabit with knowledge that they are not lawfully married. Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wash. 2d 339, 346, 898 P.2d 831 (1995). Whether a relationship is meretricious depends upon the facts of each case. Lindsey, 101 Wash. 2d at 305. Mr. Widner contends that his relationship with Ms. Sutton was not a meretricious relationship. He concedes that he and Ms. Sutton lived together long enough. But, he argues the second requirement of a meretricious relationship one which he describes as "requiring distribution of property" does not exist. We disagree.

In Lindsey, the court refused to adopt a rigid set of requirements for determining whether a relationship was meretricious. 101 Wash. 2d at 305.

The court opted instead to examine each case on its facts. Mr. Widner's suggestion that we differentiate between meretricious relationships which require distribution and those which do not ignores Lindsey. Once the court concludes that a meretricious relationship exists, the court must then make a just and equitable distribution of property. See generally Connell, 127 Wash. 2d at 349. Here, the court's Conclusion that a meretricious relationship existed is amply supported by the findings of fact which are in turn amply supported by the evidence in this case. In re Marriage of Hilt, 41 Wash. App. 434, 438, 704 P.2d 672 (1985) (appellate review is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports findings and findings support trial court's Conclusions of law).

Here, Mr. Widner and Ms. Sutton lived together and had a sexually intimate relationship from April 1989 until August 1994. During that relationship, both contributed to the cost of housing and to the effort to finish and then move into a new home. They generally supported each other in both work and leisure activities. Although both maintained separate identities and accounts, the length of cohabitation, the contribution to the house, and their joint efforts on behalf of their relationship amply support the court's Conclusion that this was a meretricious relationship, which under Lindsey required a just and equitable distribution of property.

See Connell, 127 Wash. 2d at 346 ("While a 'long term' relationship is not a threshold requirement, duration is a significant factor."); Hilt, 41 Wash. App. at 438-39 (upholding trial court's Conclusion that meretricious relationship existed based on lengthy ...


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