Mental Health Issues and Divorce in Pennsylvania

A look at mental health’s effects on divorce.

By , Attorney

Mental health issues can complicate even the best marriages and will likely come up in a divorce action. If you have children, you or your spouse's mental illness may affect child custody as well. This article provides an overview of the effects of mental illness on divorce in Pennsylvania. If you have questions after reading this article, please contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Divorce

When an individual files for divorce, he or she must claim a "ground" or reason for the breakdown of the couple's marriage. Pennsylvania courts recognize both fault and no-fault grounds for divorce. A spouse can claim that neither person was at fault and that the marriage simply didn't work.

Alternatively, a divorce petition based on fault grounds claims that one spouse caused the breakup of the marriage. The following divorce grounds are recognized in Pennsylvania:

  • adultery
  • cruelty, including domestic violence which endangers the life of an innocent spouse
  • bigamy
  • abandonment for at least one year
  • criminal conviction resulting in imprisonment for at least two years, and
  • humiliation of innocent spouse making marriage intolerable.

In addition to fault grounds, a healthy spouse can file for divorce on grounds of institutionalization. For divorce purposes, institutionalization means the insane spouse has a serious mental disorder and has spent the last 18 months in a mental hospital. The healthy spouse must show that the insanity is permanent and that the mentally ill spouse is unlikely to recover.

Can I Divorce a Mentally Ill Spouse?

An insane spouse can't use his or her mental illness as an excuse to avoid divorce. A healthy spouse is free to file divorce against a mentally ill spouse. However, a guardian or conservator must be appointed to a mentally incapacitated spouse to preserve his or her interests in a divorce. Unlike criminal law, insanity can't be raised as a defense in a divorce case. One exception is that a spouse can plead insanity to avoid responsibility for claims that he or she acted cruelly or committed adultery during a marriage.

In Pennsylvania, mental incapacity or insanity can also serve as grounds for annulment. The healthy spouse must prove that the other spouse was mentally incapacitated at the time of marriage and that the incapacity is permanent. For annulment purposes, the mental incapacity can be tied to mental incapacity or a result of substance abuse at the time of marriage.

Impact of Mental Health Issues on Child Custody

A parent's chances of obtaining primary custody aren't ruined because he or she has mental health issues. Rather, a child's physical and mental well-being is the central focus in custody decisions. Past mental health challenges won't necessarily prevent a parent from receiving custody.

Obviously, a more serious mental health issue will have a bigger impact on custody decisions. In one Pennsylvania case, the court awarded custody to a stable father instead of a mother who struggled with mental health issues. The court denied the mother's request for custody because she was erratic and had abandoned her husband and children for months at a time. The judge's decision was based on which parent was best able to provide safety and stability for the couple's minor children.

Will a Judge Terminate Parental Rights Because of Mental Illness?

A parent won't automatically lose his or her parental rights because of past or current mental health conditions. Courts don't terminate a parent's rights unless it's in the best interests of the child. Some circumstances where a parent's rights might be terminated, include:

  • the parent is impaired or incapacitated to the extent the child is continually without parental care
  • the parent exhibits abusive or cruel conduct toward the child
  • the parent has abandoned the child for at least six months
  • the child was removed from the parent's home for at least six months and the parent refuses to remedy the situation
  • the child is neglected, or
  • the parent is imprisoned for a felony offense.

In one Pennsylvania case, the court terminated a schizophrenic mother's parental rights. Since her child's birth, the mother was a frequent patient in the state mental hospital. Although the mother testified that she wanted to care for her child, she lacked the physical and mental capacity to do so. The court found that terminating the mother's parental rights was in the child's best interests.

A parent with well-controlled mental illness is unlikely to lose his or her parental rights. Terminating parental rights is only appropriate in the most severe cases of abuse or neglect.

Impact of Mental Health Issues on Support

Mental illness won't relieve a parent from his or her support obligation. However, in some cases, a mentally ill spouse may need additional support from a healthy spouse. A judge will balance the needs of both spouses and any children when deciding support. In cases where a mentally incapacitated spouse is unable to work, his or her support obligation may be reduced.

You or your spouse's mental health will impact your divorce. It's important to understand the effects of mental illness on divorce, especially if you have children. If you have additional questions about the impact of mental illness on divorce in Pennsylvania, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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