Cohabitation and Custody Under Arkansas Law

By Cindy Chung

Boy with torn photograph of parents

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If parents have a custody dispute, they may need guidance through a court order. In Arkansas, custody laws require a review by a judge when the parents cannot agree on custody. Not surprisingly, some parents might begin dating other people while they have custody disputes or share co-parenting duties. A parent's new relationship and cohabitation might affect a judge's decision in the initial custody dispute or in the modification of an existing custody order.

Custody Disputes in Arkansas

Arkansas custody laws determine the legal standard to be applied — the best interests of the child — when parents have custody disputes. State laws specifically allow a judge to look at each parent's moral character and judgment when deciding how to rule regarding custody. The judge may also consider each parent's ability to provide for the children's moral needs. Cohabitation with a partner outside of marriage, although socially acceptable to some, may affect a judge's view regarding a parent's home during a custody determination. However, the court must consider a lengthy list of custody factors by Arkansas law, and other factors may require a custody award in favor of the parent engaged in cohabitation.

Home Studies

If parents have a pending custody dispute in an Arkansas court, the judge may require a home study to evaluate each parent's residence and the living environment available for the children. A home study generally requires an evaluation by a social worker or another type of court-approved professional. The content of each home study may include information regarding a parent's romantic relationship if the new partner lives in the parent's home. A judge might look unfavorably upon a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend who resides in the home outside of marriage; the court may see the live-in arrangement as a reflection of the parent's moral judgment. In addition, the judge may also review the home study for information regarding overnight visits by opposite-sex guests.

Terms of Custody Order

An Arkansas court order for child custody or a divorce decree generally establishes the terms to be followed by both parents. The court order or decree may include terms requested or agreed-upon by the parents, especially if they sign a "shared parenting agreement" together. For example, parents may want to include terms limiting cohabitation or setting consequences for non-marital cohabitation with a new boyfriend or girlfriend. If either parent disregards terms from the court order or decree in the future, the other parent can return to court and seek enforcement. Arkansas law provides for enforcement through a contempt action filed with the court that ordered the existing custody terms.

Custody Modification

Cohabitation may affect parents' rights even if they have an existing order for child custody and visitation. Under Arkansas law, either parent may return to court and ask the judge to change the existing order through a petition for modification. To get a modified court order for custody, the parent requesting the new terms must prove a "material change in circumstances." If one of the parents starts cohabiting with a new partner, the court might view the new living arrangement as justification for a custody change. However, the judge must still make an overall determination of the child's best interests.