Mental Health Issues and Divorce in California

Learn how mental health issues can affect divorce in California.

By , Attorney · Harvard Law School
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Mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and addiction disorders can impact all aspects of life, and marriage is no exception. In many states a spouse can seek a divorce on the grounds of the other spouse's mental illness. Mental health can factor into custody and alimony decisions as well.

This article explains how mental health affects divorce in California. If you have additional questions about mental health and divorce in California after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney.

Mental Health and Grounds for Divorce

In California, a spouse seeking a divorce doesn't have to prove that the other spouse caused the divorce; this is called "no-fault divorce." However, in specific circumstances, a spouse can seek a divorce based on the other spouse's mental illness. California courts can dissolve a marriage on the grounds that a spouse is permanently unable to make decisions, known as "legal incapacity." Legal incapacity is a determination that a person is of unsound mind and lacks the ability to make decisions such as getting married, entering into contracts, making medical decisions, or executing wills or trusts. A person who is legally incapable of making decisions has deficits in one or more of the following categories:

  • alertness and attention
  • information processing (such as memory or communication problems)
  • thought processes (like delusions or hallucinations)
  • ability to modulate mood and affect

A spouse seeking a divorce for legal incapacity must prove that the other spouse permanently lacked the capacity to make decisions at the time of the divorce filing. The judge will require the testimony or statement of multiple mental health professionals to determine whether the spouse in question suffers from mental illness to the extent that spouse is legally incapable of making decisions.

The spouse seeking divorce should serve (deliver) the petition for divorce on the mentally ill spouse's guardian or conservator, if there is one. The guardian or conservator then represents the mentally ill spouse's interests in court. A sane spouse doesn't have any more right to the couple's property than the insane spouse.

Mental Health's Impact on Custody

California judges determine child custody in accordance with each child's best interests. A child's safety is the court's utmost concern in custody decisions. If parents have mental health conditions that threaten a child's safety and wellbeing, the court must consider those mental illnesses when deciding custody. Many parents are able to manage their mental illnesses without it affecting their parenting abilities. Other parents suffer from mental illnesses that make them prone to violence or child neglect. If a mentally ill parent can't parent appropriately, the court is likely to grant custody to the other parent, or a third party.

Typically, when a child is removed from a parent's home due to issues related to the parent's mental illness, the State Department of Social Services will provide family reunification services. The Department won't provide those services in cases where the parent is too mentally ill to benefit or if the parent is confined to an institution for treatment.

In some cases, a judge may declare a parent developmentally disabled or mentally ill. If the Director of State Hospitals or Director of Developmental Services, or similar person, certifies that the parent is incapable of supporting or controlling a child properly, the state can petition the court to terminate the parent's parental rights. Two mental health experts must testify that they expect the parent's disability to continue indefinitely before a judge will terminate parental rights.

Alcohol and drug abuse also affect custody decisions. When one parent abuses alcohol or drugs, a court may be more likely to grant child custody to the other parent, especially if the use of alcohol or drugs interferes with the parent's ability to raise the child appropriately. A parent's regular but moderate use of alcohol won't affect the judge's custody determination unless there are ill effects for the child.

If a parent abuses alcohol or drugs to the point that it significantly threatens a child's safety, a court can terminate that parent's parental rights. For example, if a child was seriously injured due to a parent driving while intoxicated, a judge can take away that parent's custodial rights permanently. Also, if a parent suffers from a mental disability due to chronic drug use, which makes the parent unfit to care for a child, the court may terminate parental rights.

Can Mental Health Affect Spousal Support?

California courts decide alimony, also known as "spousal support," based on whether each spouse has the earning ability to maintain the standard of living they each had during the marriage. Some newly-divorced individuals are mentally ill to the point employment is impossible. These mentally ill, unemployed divorcees often struggle maintaining their marital standard of living. Disability benefits may cover a portion of their expenses, but courts often require their ex-spouses to pay spousal support to supplement benefit payments and make up the difference.

If a court grants a divorce on the grounds of legal incapacity, the sane spouse is still obligated to support the spouse who lacks the legal capacity to make decisions.

A judge is unlikely to grant a parent alimony due to that parent's issues with alcohol or drugs. A parent who can't hold a job due to addiction should seek treatment so that employment is possible. In some rare cases when a parent suffers from a mental illness due to chronic drug use, a court may order the other spouse to pay some amount of alimony.

Can Mental Health Void a Marriage?

In California, courts can annul marriages when one spouse couldn't have consented to the marriage at the time of the wedding. For example, if one spouse was underage or was forced to marry, the judge will declare the marriage void. Courts can also annul marriages when one spouse couldn't have consented due to being unable to understand the nature of marriage. If a spouse suffering from mental health issues at the time of the marriage recovers, however, and continues to freely live with the other spouse, a judge can't annul the marriage.

Similarly, a court may annul a marriage if one spouse was too intoxicated by drugs or alcohol at the time of the wedding to understand he or she was getting married, unless the couple voluntarily lives together after the intoxicated spouse sobers up.

If you have additional questions about mental health and divorce, contact a California family law attorney for help.

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