Mental Health Issues and Divorce in New Jersey

Learn how mental health issues may affect divorce in New Jersey.

Mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and addiction play a role in divorce and other family law matters in New Jersey. If you're interested in finding out how this can affect the outcome of a case, this article should help.

Are Mental Health Problems Grounds for Divorce?

In order to obtain a divorce, you must have "grounds" (reasons). Recognized grounds vary somewhat from state to state.

"No-fault" divorce is now available virtually everywhere in the United States. This is where neither spouse has to prove that the other did anything that caused the marriage to collapse. A typical no-fault ground for divorce is "irreconcilable differences" (incompatibility), which means the spouses don't get along anymore and there's no reasonable chance of reconciliation.

Many states also still allow "fault-based" divorce, where one (or both) spouses must prove the other is the cause of the failed marriage. Some common fault-based grounds are adultery and extreme mental or physical cruelty.

New Jersey law specifically includes grounds for divorce based on mental health issues, including addiction. They are:

  • "voluntarily induced" drug addiction or habitual drunkenness for a period of 12 or more consecutive months after the marriage and before the divorce is started, and
  • institutionalization for mental illness for a period of 24 or more consecutive months after the marriage and before the divorce is started.

Mental Illness and Annulment

When you ask for an annulment, you're basically asking the court to declare that your marriage is void, which means the marriage never existed because it should not have taken place to begin with.

In New Jersey, one of the grounds for annulment is that one of the spouses didn't have the ability to voluntarily consent to the marriage because of a mental condition or the influence of intoxicants or drugs. This means that the spouse's condition was so bad when the marriage occurred, that he or she couldn't understand the significance of what was happening. An example of this might be where a spouse suffering from schizophrenia was delusional when the marriage took place.

Courts wont grant an annulment if the incapacitated spouse later "ratified" the marriage by consenting to it after learning that there were possible grounds for an annulment.

How Mental Health Impacts Custody and Visitation

Courts make custody decisions based on what they believe to be in the child's best interest. Under New Jersey law, the court will look at a number of factors in reaching a decision on which parent (if not both) should have custody and how it will set up visitation (also called parenting time). Some factors courts look at include:

  • the child's needs
  • the stability of the home environment, and
  • the parents' fitness to raise or be with the child.

Obviously, a parent's mental instability (such as untreated bipolar disorder) or active substance abuse (like drug or alcohol addiction) are conditions that could directly relate to all of the factors listed above. A court will review the circumstances of each case to determine if—and how—these mental health problems will affect a child.

If the court believes it's necessary, it can place restrictions on how the parents spend time with the children. For example, if a parent is struggling with a drinking problem, a judge may order the parent not to consume alcohol when visiting the children.

If a court determines that it wouldn't be safe to leave a parent alone with his or her child, it can order supervised visitation. In this situation, the parent can only see the child in the presence of a third party, such as a grandparent, mutual friend, or social services agency.

The Role of Mental Health in Terminating Parental Rights

Parents have a constitutionally-protected right to raise their children. But there are times when a parent is so unfit to meet parental duties that the child's best interest requires a termination of parental rights.

Under New Jersey law, the Division of Family Development brings what is known as a "petition" (request) to terminate a parent's rights. The court will grant the petition only if the request meets certain standards. One of these standards is that the parental relationship has endangered—or will continue to endanger—the child's safety, health, or development.

Clearly, severe mental instability or active significant substance abuse can fall into that category. In one New Jersey case, the court specifically found that a father's drug addiction as well as his unwillingness to seek treatment for longstanding psychological problems, was enough to terminate his parental rights.

Mental Health Issues Relate to Alimony and Property Distribution

In New Jersey, a judge can take mental health issues into account when deciding whether to award alimony—and how much. The law states that the court should look at, among other things:

  • the spouses' age, physical and emotional health, and
  • the spouses' earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability.

"Emotional" health obviously includes mental health. And mental illness can certainly have a negative impact on someone's ability to earn a living. So, a judge may award a mentally-ill spouse alimony to compensate for the inability to generate employment income.

Likewise, under New Jersey law, a court will consider the spouses' ages and their physical and emotional health when deciding how the their property should be divided in a divorce. Again, a court could order that a mentally-ill spouse should receive more than half the marital property, if the judge believes that's necessary to help that spouse cover financial needs, including basic living expenses.

Mental health and divorce in New Jersey is a complicated subject. Consult a qualified family law attorney with any questions you may have.

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