Mental Health Issues and Divorce in Georgia

By , Attorney · Harvard Law School
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One in five people in the United States suffer a mental illness in any given year. Mental illness can have a devastating impact on families and relationships. Each state has its own laws governing how a person's mental health issues can affect divorce, child custody, and alimony.

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

Mental Health and Divorce

In most states, including Georgia, you can divorce your spouse for either fault grounds, like adultery or cruel treatment, or no-fault grounds. While most spouses simply ask for a divorce due to irreconcilable differences, in cases of severe mental illness, a spouse can seek a divorce due to incurable mental illness.

For a judge to grant a divorce for incurable mental illness, all of the following must happen:

  • the spouse is found to be mentally ill by a court or certified to be mentally ill by two physicians who have examined the spouse
  • the spouse has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill or under continuous treatment for two years prior to the divorce, and
  • the superintendent or other head of the institution testifies that the spouse is unable to comprehend the nature of the marital relationship and will not recover.

In Georgia, you can also divorce your spouse for habitual drug addiction or habitual intoxication. Use of illegal drugs or abuse of prescription drugs or alcohol can be grounds for divorce. Courts will consider a spouse's addiction issues when dividing the marital estate as well. An addicted spouse may receive a smaller share of the marital estate upon divorce, particularly if he or she used marital money to fund the addiction.

Mental Health Issues and Custody

Georgia judges consider a wide variety of factors when deciding child custody, but the custodial decision always centers on what's in the child's best interest. Courts take a hard look at both parents' mental health and what effect any mental health issues may have on their parenting abilities. Many mentally ill parents are able to manage their illness and appropriately care for children, but other parents suffer from mental illness to the degree they may be prone to violence or neglect. When a parent's mental illness negatively impacts his or her child, judges are more likely to grant primary custody to the other parent.

In Georgia, courts have a number of protections they can include in custody orders to protect children of mentally ill parents. Often, the parent must regularly meet with a mental health professional and follow treatment, including medication. Depending on the severity of the mental illness, a judge may eliminate overnight visitation or require that all visitation be supervised.

In extreme cases, such as when a parent has caused serious harm to a child (or the child's other parent), the court may terminate the parent-child relationship. Termination of parental rights is a permanent option, so it's the last option; judges only terminate parental rights for mentally ill parents if mental health professionals testify that the illness is severe and expected to continue indefinitely.

Georgia courts also consider a parent's use of alcohol or drugs when deciding custody. While moderate alcohol consumption isn't a problem in most cases, any abuse of alcohol or other controlled substances can hurt a parent's chance of gaining custody.

Judges often require addicted parents to seek treatment, and attend support groups for addicts, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Addicted parents must abstain from consuming alcohol or controlled substances during child visitation periods, and may be subject to drug screens. Courts can further restrict or terminate visitation for parents who can't stay sober.

Can Mental Health Affect Spousal Support?

Courts in Georgia consider several factors when determining whether to order one spouse to pay the other alimony, including each spouse's financial resources, earning ability, and physical and mental health. When a spouse is unable to work due to mental illness, a judge may order the other spouse to pay alimony. Courts factor in the amount a mentally ill spouse may receive from Social Security disability payments. Either spouse can ask the court to modify (adjust) alimony if circumstances change in the future.

Although an addiction to drugs or alcohol may prevent a spouse from working, Georgia judges aren't likely to grant an addicted spouse alimony without compelling reasons. For one, granting an addicted spouse alimony provides the resources to continue an addiction. Further, courts don't want to financially reward the addictive behavior. In some circumstances, however, a judge may order a spouse to pay for an addicted spouse's treatment, with the goal of the addicted spouse recovering and becoming self-sufficient.

Other Issues

To get married in Georgia, you must be 18 years old (or 16 with parental consent), have no living spouse, and be of "sound mind." If a person is incapacitated at the time of marriage, the court will declare the marriage void, also referred to as "annulment." A friend can file the petition for annulment. If the judge grants an annulment, the couple is deemed to have never married, although any children born of the marriage are considered legitimate.

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

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