9 Ways Living Accommodations Can Affect Child Custody

One factor that courts consider when making child custody and visitation decisions is a parent's living accommodations. Acceptable living accommodations are those that allow a child to live safely, be comfortable, and thrive—but determining whether a parent’s living situation fits that bill depends on a number of things.  

Child custody laws vary from state to state, and considerations vary by court and even by the judge, but all states work to determine the best interests of the child.

Best interest parameters usually include things like:

  • The relationship between a child and their parents and other household members
  • The ability of parents to provide for their child
  • The mental and physical health of the parents and the child

Here are some general guidelines a judge might consider when faced with a challenge to living accommodations for custody and visitation purposes.

1

Amount of Privacy

Boy in pajamas drawing with digital tablet on bed
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Ideally, kids have their own bedroom or one that they share with siblings in the home that they spend the majority of their overnights. Sometimes a question arises about whether a child needs to have their own separate bedroom at a non-custodial parent’s home as well.

Courts may prefer that a child have their own bedroom, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. The main thing to keep in mind is whether your child has enough privacy at each parent’s home. This could mean ensuring that the child has their own bedroom, bathroom, or a private place to get dressed.

Whether your child shares a bedroom with a sibling is also worth some consideration. Teenagers require more privacy than younger children. This means that a court may not look favorably upon a teen sharing a bedroom with a sibling in elementary school.

Siblings of different genders may be able to share space when they are preschool age and younger, but as they become older and aware of modesty, they will likely prefer more privacy.

Splitting up a shared space could be a simple solution. Curtains or room dividers might be just the thing to help everyone feel a little more comfortable. This can be ideal especially in cases where different gender or different age siblings need to share space but require more privacy.

A judge will be flexible and take into consideration each parent's unique situation.

2

Number of Children

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A judge will also consider the number of children involved when determining if a parent has appropriate living accommodations. If a parent has more than one child, a judge might expect the parent to have more space to accommodate the children during overnight visits. Unfortunately, this may mean the judge may hold it against you if you want your three children to share a bedroom or one child to sleep on the couch and another in the bedroom with you. 

Part of determining the best interest of the child includes evaluating a child’s relationship with other people in the household. If your household members include step-siblings—even if they are only there occasionally—the judge will likely want to understand what kind of relationship your child has with them.  

If your kids do not have a close or positive relationship with their step-siblings, you may want to consider staggering their visits so that they do not overlap.

3

Parent’s Financial Situation

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In some states, the inability to provide for a child financially is exempted from the definition of neglect. This does not mean, however, that custody arrangements won’t be impacted if you can’t provide for your child’s basic needs.

A judge will consider a parent's unique financial situation when determining child custody and appropriate living accommodations. For example, a grandparent with custodial rights may have less money to provide a larger home for their grandchildren. A parent who pays child support might not be able to afford a home that allows their children to have their own rooms.

Determining whether a parent has the capacity to adequately provide for a child’s basic needs is one of the standards for determining the child’s best interest in custody cases. In most cases—even if you are under or unemployed—if you can provide for your child’s basic needs like food, clothing, and housing, a judge won’t automatically hold your lack of income against you. 

If you are living with your own parents for financial reasons, a judge is more likely to be interested in the living environment and what kind of relationship your child has with other household members than why you live there.

A higher income does not automatically make a person a better parent. Most judges understand this. When a court looks at custody arrangements, they look at all aspects of what is best for the child. Financial stability is only one of them.

4

Parent’s Age

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The age of the parent may be a factor in a judge’s decision about custody. Teenage parents may require additional support, often from their own parents. Still, teen parents are their child’s caregiver, and a judge will take into account the best interest factors when determining custody.

Sometimes grandparents are a child’s custodial parents. This may happen if one or both parents have been deemed unfit, the parents have agreed to give the grandparents custody, or in the case of a parent’s illness or death. In some situations, grandparents hold joint custody with one of the child’s parents. 

According to the United States Census Bureau, 10% of children live with at least one grandparent. Grandparents who have custody of their grandchildren are held to the same standards as parents when it comes to determining the best interest of the child.

As grandparents age, sometimes health conditions may make caring for grandchildren more difficult. If you are in good physical health and are able to meet your grandchild’s needs, your age alone should not be a deterrent in determining child custody.

5

Type of Home

Father and son on steps outside house
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Not everyone lives in the same kind of home. Forms of housing that are considered typical include apartment buildings, multi-unit homes, single-family homes, and mobile homes. But what about more unusual living situations, like a car or camper? Are those living arrangements out of the question?

Living in a car is not looked upon favorably by the court. A car is too small to offer adequate space, cleanliness, or privacy as defined by standards that determine the best interest of the child. Often, living in a car is a dire circumstance that may indicate a lack of resources and support.

RV living may be looked upon in a similar way, although, the choice to live in an RV may in some cases be more intentional. Still, depending on the situation and whether the camper is moving from place to place, RVs may not offer the same level of space, stability, and access to friends and school that a typical home would.

Some things a judge may take into consideration about living in an RV are whether the situation is temporary or permanent, the climate in which the RV is located, and whether the child has access to school and regular doctor visits.

6

Location

Mom walks children home from school bus
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Where you live may also play into decisions about child custody. A judge may consider how long you’ve lived in a home, what the neighborhood and schools are like, and whether the distance from the child’s other parent poses a burden on your ability to co-parent.

A number of states explicitly cite “stability” as a factor in determining the best interest of a child. The location of your home and whether you move frequently or stay in one place all contribute to how stable a child may feel in your custody.

Stability is also a factor in regards to the access a child has to their other parent. If one parent is considering a move, and that move might impact a child’s ability to maintain easy or frequent access to a parent, this may be looked at unfavorably by a judge.  

7

Other Adults Staying Overnight

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If you have a partner that doesn’t live with you, you may be wondering if it is OK for them to occasionally spend the night. The straightforward part of the answer is yes—if your children aren’t around. When your kids are home, the answer is that it depends.

Some divorce agreements spell this issue out. If you’re not sure, revisit your paperwork to see if you and your child’s other parent agreed to a prohibition on sleepovers or if a judge ordered against it. It’s best to be sure that you are not inadvertently breaking any court-approved agreement. 

If there aren’t legal barriers, the judge will fall again to looking at the best interest factors. Factors that come into play with a partner sleeping over include stability, relationships with other people in the household, and the safety of the child. 

Consider the potential fallout of sleepovers. How will sleepovers make your child feel? How will your child’s other parent react when they find out? Some parents decide that the best time for sleepovers is when their child isn’t at home.

8

What the Child Is Accustomed To

Family lifestyle
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When considering living arrangements, a judge will consider whether a child would be psychologically affected by a drastic change in their environment. Again, a judge's main concern will be the best interest of the child. 

Separation and divorce often involve housing moves for one or both parents. As such, kids will naturally need to adjust to at least one new living space. Generally speaking, a judge would assume that a child will be happy, even if their new home has less space, as long as the child has the opportunity to have other needs consistently met. 

Some states consider the reasonable preference of the child. Even so, a child’s preference is only one factor in making custody determinations. Some judges hesitate to have children weigh in on their preference since doing so can present a psychological burden to the child of hurting one parent.

9

Safety of the Child

Day in the life of a stay at home dad
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A child’s physical, mental, and emotional safety are key factors in determining the best interest of the child. A judge will want to know if there is any risk of harm to a child in a home or neighborhood. 

Risks to safety that a judge might watch for include:

  • The potential for physical or sexual abuse or neglect
  • Access to guns
  • Exposure to drugs or alcohol
  • Domestic violence

If a new person is involved in your life, such as a roommate or a partner, their habits and lifestyle may be scrutinized. If any of the above risks to safety apply, they may influence a custody decision.

A Word From Verywell

Decisions about child custody can be stressful. A judge’s job is to make decisions in the best interest of the child. There is no perfect formula for determining what is best for kids. Each child and parent is unique, so a judge will take each case’s specific situation into account.

There are plenty of things you can do to help things go in your favor. Offering your child enough space and privacy and keeping things consistent are some ways that you can demonstrate that your home is safe and stable for your child.

Remember, if the outcome of child custody doesn’t turn out as you had hoped, custody arrangements can be revisited by the court.

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Article Sources
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  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Determining the Best Interests of the Child. March 2016.

  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect. Updated March 2019.

  3. United States Census Bureau. 10 Percent of Grandparents Live With a Grandchild, Census Bureau Reports. 2014.