Mental Health Issues and Divorce in Missouri

Learn how mental health issues can affect divorce outcomes in Missouri.

Mental health issues, such as mental illness and addiction, can tear a marriage apart and leave young children with lasting emotional trauma. This article will explain the potential impact of mental illness and chemical dependency on divorce proceedings in Missouri.

Marital Fault

In Missouri, judges can decide divorce cases based on the concept of "marital fault," meaning that the court assigns blame for the break-up to the spouse who committed wrongful behavior, including situations where:

  • one spouse has committed adultery
  • one spouse has behaved in such a way that the other spouse can't be reasonably expected to continue to live with that spouse
  • one spouse has abandoned the other for a continuous period of at least six months
  • the spouses have lived separately, by mutual consent, for at least 12 months preceding the divorce, or
  • the spouses have lived separately for at least 24 months before divorce proceedings start.

But it is comparatively rare for divorce to be decided based on fault grounds. More commonly, the spouses just have to show that the marriage is "irretrievably broken," so judges won't hear evidence about who caused the breakdown of the marriage. All that matters is that the marriage can't be saved; it doesn't matter why.

In Missouri, marriage is considered a "civil contract." Marriages between people who lack capacity to enter into a marriage are prohibited unless a court specifically approves the marriage. Because marriage is a civil contract, both parties have to be able to give full consent to the marriage, meaning they need to be able to understand everything that's happening, and if they don't understand due to chemical dependency or mental illness, the marriage is considered invalid.

However, if the marriage was valid at the time it was performed and a spouse later suffers from mental health problems, the other spouse can't use the mental illness as a basis for the divorce. For example, in one case, a younger woman married a 90-year-old man. Several weeks after the marriage, the man's family obtained an incompetency petition that declared him unable to make key legal decisions, like getting married. The court ruled against the man's family, finding that the man was not "senile and feeble-minded" at the time he got married. Sheffield v. Andrews, 440 S.W.2d (Mo. Ct. App. 1969).

Mental Health Issues and Child Custody

When two parties are divorcing or when unmarried parties are breaking up, the Missouri family courts are required to consider a list of factors to decide the best interests of the children, including:

  • the parents' wishes as to custody and any proposed visitation schedule
  • the child's need for a frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationship with both parents
  • each parent's ability and willingness to actively perform their respective parental functions
  • the child's interaction and interrelationship with parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child's best interests
  • which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with the other parent
  • the child's adjustment to home, school, and community
  • the mental and physical health of all individuals involved, including any history of abuse
  • the intention of either parent to relocate the principal residence of the child, and
  • the wishes of a child as to custody.

Judges are required to consider the mental and physical health of the parents, the children, and any other people close to the children. For example, in Purdun v. Purdun, 163 S.W.2d 598, 601 (Mo. Ct. App. 2005), the family court judge awarded the father custody because the children were endangered by the mother's severe depression and alcoholism. The mother acknowledged that she had an alcohol problem and that the father's safety concerns while the children were with her were "not completely unfounded." Accordingly, the court found that the father was a more stable parent and more suited to have custody of the children.

Mental health and chemical dependency can also play a role in visitation. A non-custodial parent is entitled to "reasonable visitation" unless the court finds, after a hearing, that visitation would endanger the child's physical health or impair the child's emotional development. For example, if a severe addiction to alcohol or untreated bipolar disorder interferes with a parent's ability to care for a child, the court can put restrictions on parenting time by, for example, prohibiting overnight visits or appointing a neutral person to supervise the visits.

How Mental Health Issues May Affect Alimony

In Missouri, courts typically award spousal maintenance (also known as alimony) when one spouse lacks sufficient income or assets to cover financial expenses, or when one spouse, who has custody of a young child, can't work outside the home.

To decide whether to award alimony, judges look at all of the following factors:

  • the financial resources of the party asking for alimony, including marital property received through the divorce and the party's ability to meet needs independently
  • the time necessary for the supported spouse to gain the training and education needed to obtain employment
  • the comparative earning capacity of each spouse
  • the standard of living established during the marriage
  • the obligations and assets of each spouse, including marital property divided up during the divorce and any separate (non-marital) property
  • the length of the marriage
  • the age and the physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking alimony
  • the ability of the paying spouse to meet his or her own financial needs while paying alimony
  • the conduct of the parties during the marriage, and
  • any other relevant factors.

On its very face, the law indicates that emotional and physical conditions and behavior during the marriage are factors to be considered when the court decides whether to award alimony, for what amount, and for what duration—temporary or permanent.

For instance, in one case a wife stopped working because her husband told her that she was suffering from depression, though she never obtained a clinical diagnosis. Without a medical diagnosis, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that she suffered from a mental illness and therefore she was not entitled to alimony on that basis. Liljedahl v. Asher, 942 S.W.2d 919, 924-25 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997).

On the other hand, in a case where a wife began exhibiting bizarre behavior after 34 years of marriage (for example, refusing to leave the house, removing all the doors in the house, removing cover plates from electrical outlets, and dressing strangely) and received a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia, the court properly took the wife's mental health problems into consideration when making decisions about alimony. Kuester v. Kuester, 633 S.W.2d 281, 281, 283-84 (Mo. Ct. App. 1982).

Unless the spouses agree otherwise, alimony awards can be modified at a later time, if there has been a significant change in circumstances.

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