Can cohabitation affect spousal support or child custody?

The definition of cohabitation varies from state to state, but the term generally refers to an unmarried couple living together in a romantic relationship. According to the U.S. Census, the number of unmarried couples living together increased tenfold from 1960 to 2000. Cohabitation can be an attractive option for couples, but if you are divorced or separated from your ex-spouse, you should understand the ramifications of cohabitation before moving in with your new partner.

The Impact of Cohabitation on Spousal Support

Cohabitation with another person may alter any spousal support you receive after a divorce. If you share your home with someone, your monthly expenses and need for support from your ex-spouse will likely change. In the majority of states, courts will reduce or terminate spousal support if the cohabitation materially decreases your need for support. In other states, spousal support can be terminated regardless of any changes in your need for support. And in some states, cohabitation does not affect spousal support at all.

The person requesting a change in spousal support will usually be required to prove that the economic circumstances have significantly changed. If you and your ex-spouse have made an agreement that spousal support will not be affected by a partner’s cohabitation, your agreement will most likely stand regardless of state law. 

Cohabitation and Initial Child Custody Determinations

You might save yourself time, money, and unwanted scrutiny from a judge if you and your ex-spouse can agree on child custody arrangements outside of court. Courts will generally approve your agreement as long as it is reasonable and not harmful to your children. If you cannot agree on a custody arrangement, the court will make its determination based on the best interests of the children involved. 

While making child custody arrangements, the judge will consider many factors, including cohabitation. If one parent’s living arrangements afford better opportunities to a child or are more suited to the child’s best interests, the judge may arrange custody in that parent’s favor. Judges normally prefer to keep families together and will not ordinarily deny custody just because a parent is living with someone else.

But in some states, a parent’s cohabitation can be used to refuse child custody. For example, an Illinois court found that parental sexual conduct may have a bearing on the stability of a child’s home environment, and therefore this conduct may legitimately factor into custody determinations. If you and your ex-spouse disagree about the effects of cohabitation, consult with attorney in your area to find out about local rules and regulations. 

Cohabitation after Child Custody Determinations

In order for a court to change its original custody decision, there must be some material change in circumstances that alters the court’s view of what is best for the child. Some states allow a judge to consider cohabitation as a factor in modifying custody arrangements, but most courts evaluate a parent’s living situation when determining child custody. 

If a judge finds that your cohabitation could have a negative impact on your child, the judge may modify the original child custody award. Courts usually disapprove of children being aware of their parents’ intimate conduct so if you are cohabitating, make sure that you act reasonably and do not flaunt your sexual conduct in front of your children. Make sure your relationship and home life are functional and nurturing. Courts tend to favor parents who maintain a stable home life and set a good example for their children. For more information about your state’s laws regarding cohabitation, consult an attorney in your area.