When you’re a divorcing parent, one of the issues you will likely face in your divorce is whether to include a “morality clause” in your divorce judgment. Depending on the state you’re divorcing in, you may also have to live with a morality clause while your divorce is going on. Understanding that clause, and defining it in your divorce, can have tremendous long-term consequences for both you and your kids.
What is a Morality Clause?
While there are many variations of that clause, a morality clause is essentially a provision in a divorce decree, or court order, that says that neither parent can have a romantic partner spend the night while the children are present.
There are also morality clauses that prohibit a parent from using drugs or alcohol while in the presence of the children.
Putting a morality clause in a divorce judgment is typically something that parents can decide to do (or not) at the end of their divorce. However, it’s also possible to put a morality clause in place while a divorce case is pending. What’s more, some courts (like in Texas) have a standing order that imposes an automatic morality clause in every divorce.
If your divorce is filed in a court that has such a standing order, you must abide by the terms of the automatic morality clause for as long as your case is pending. It doesn’t matter whether you like or agree with that clause. You must do what the order states. Period.
Morality Clause Examples
There is no ONE “morality clause” that everyone everywhere uses. However, most of these clauses are fairly similar. For example, they might say something like this.
Neither parent shall co-habitate with, or sleep overnight with, any person to whom that parent is not legally married and with whom that parent is involved in and intimate relationship, while the children are in that parent’s physical possession.
The clause may also specify the exact times that a parent’s “significant other” may not be at the home with the children. For example, the clause might state:
Both parents agree that no unrelated person with whom the parent is involved in an intimate and/or romantic relationship shall be present between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. when the children are in that parent’s physical care.
The exact wording of the clause can vary. But the idea behind them is always the same.
Why Have a Morality Clause?
Morality clauses were designed to protect children.
Preventing parents from having their new “significant other” spend the night while their children are around theoretically keeps children from being subjected to a “revolving door” of new boyfriends and girlfriends.
That’s especially helpful while a divorce is pending. Like everyone else, children need time to adjust to the new life they will have after their parents divorce.
Morality clauses also keep kids from having to deal with managing a “new family” before their “old family” has even dissolved.
For the most part, that makes a lot of sense. It especially makes sense in the beginning stages of divorce.
But, the longer a divorce drags on, the more challenging living with a morality clause becomes.
It’s one thing for a parent to say, “I won’t have anyone sleep over while the kids are here” when their divorce takes a few months. But when it drags on for a few years, maintaining a “no sleepover” rule becomes harder.
And having a morality clause included in a divorce judgment which will last long after your divorce is over can create serious problems for a divorced parent (and the kids!) long into the future.
The Morality Clause in Action
A lesbian couple in Texas lived together for three years after she was divorced from her husband. Her children lived with her.
The woman’s ex-husband took her back to court in a custody dispute. When he did, he also sought to enforce the morality provision contained in the couple’s divorce decree. He claimed that he was enforcing this provision “for the benefit of the children.”
The lesbian couple objected, stating that they were providing a stable, loving home for their children. What’s more, at that time, they couldn’t get legally married. So it was impossible for them to get out from under this clause in the divorce decree.
Ultimately, the judge enforced the provision. He gave the ex-wife’s paramour 30 days to move out of the home they shared with the children.
Should You Have a Morality Clause in Your Divorce Judgment?
Over the years, I’ve had many clients, or their spouses, insist on putting a morality clause in their divorce judgment. The reason always boils down to some variation of: “Its in the children’s best interest.”
But, is it?
What happens three or five or ten years after your divorce is over when you’re in a serious relationship with someone new? Do you make him/her leave at 9:00pm, only to sneak back into the house once the kids are asleep - then leave before they get up? Or do you marry that person just so that s/he can spend the night with you?
Neither one of those options seems particularly enticing.
Or, what if you are planning to get married, but your fiancé sells his or her house two months before the wedding and has nowhere to go? Is your fiancé supposed to get a two month lease somewhere and move twice when, in a few months, your children are going to see you living together anyway?
What if both you and your fiancé have children and you want to try spending a few weekends together as a blended family before you get married? Doing that will help you discover and address any issues your kids might have before you throw them together into a permanent blended family. But abiding by a morality clause will make testing the waters like that impossible.
What do you do if you and your boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé want to go on vacation together with the kids? Requiring the two of you to sleep in separate rooms will add a whole layer of extra expense to your trip. It also won’t make your vacation much of a getaway for you.
The Problem With Morality Clauses
The problem with a morality clauses is that life changes. They don’t.
Enforcing these clauses is also both tricky and troublesome.
That’s because, most of the time, the only witness to the violation of the clause is your kids. So taking your ex to task over violating the morality clause in your divorce decree usually means you’re going to have to put your kids on the witness stand to testify against him/her.
Is that what you really want to do? Is testifying against a parent REALLY in your kids’ best interest?
Another problem with enforcing these kinds of provisions is that they put the judge in an extremely difficult position. Most judges don’t want to know who your ex is sleeping with. They don’t care.
They don’t like putting kids on the witness stand. And they hate putting kids in the position of having to testify against one parent or the other, unless the kids are in grave danger.
Finally, judges are often reluctant to insert themselves unnecessarily into a family situation that may be working well in every way except this one.
Put in another way, courts weren’t created to enforce morality. They were created to enforce laws.
On the other hand, judges don’t appreciate people ignoring their court orders, either.
If you agreed to put a morality clause in your judgment, and you signed off on it, you can’t expect to get a lot of sympathy from the judge when you discover later that it is affecting your life in ways you never dreamed about.
So, what happens when the morality in clause in your divorce judgment comes back to haunt you? That depends on where you live, and what judge you find yourself in front of.
Some judges will enforce these provisions. Others will not.
If a judge does hold that you can’t have your romantic partner spend the night unless you get married, your choices are pretty simple. You get married. You risk losing your kids. Or, you sleep alone. Those are your only choices.
So, do yourself a favor now.
Before you agree to have a morality clause in your judgment, think long and hard about whether that’s something you really want, and are willing to live with long term.
This was originally posted in May, 2013 and updated on July 23, 2022.