Mental Health Issues and Divorce in Tennessee

A look at the impact of mental health issues on divorce in Tennessee.

By , Attorney

Mental illness affects every family differently. You or your spouse's mental illness can impact your divorce, especially if children are involved. It's important to understand the role mental health issues can play in custody decisions. This article provides an overview of the effects of mental health struggles on divorce in Tennessee. If you have questions about your own case, you should contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of the Grounds for Divorce

When you file divorce papers, you must state the "grounds" or cause of your breakup. In any state, you can file for divorce based on a separation or "irreconcilable differences," also called a "no-fault" divorce. Some states also allow "fault" divorces, where one spouse blames the other for destroying the marriage. In Tennessee, a spouse can seek a fault divorce based on one or more of the following grounds:

  • adultery
  • impotency
  • bigamy
  • willful desertion for at least one year
  • conviction and imprisonment for felony
  • murder or attempted murder of other spouse
  • willful separation of at least two years
  • chronic drunkenness or habitual substance abuse
  • cruel and inhuman treatment of other spouse, and
  • extreme neglect of other spouse.

Insanity can serve as a defense in a fault divorce. For example, in one Tennessee case, a spouse pled insanity to claims that he had acted cruelly during the couple's marriage. To use insanity as a defense, a spouse must prove that he or she couldn't control or understand the wrongfulness of his or her actions. Insanity is not, however, a defense to divorce itself; a healthy spouse can obtain a no-fault divorce from a mentally ill spouse. In certain cases, a judge may assign a guardian ad litem to protect an insane spouse's interests in a divorce.

Impact of Mental Health Issues on Child Custody

Parents' emotional health is relevant to every custody case. A judge will assess each parent's mental health and ability to provide a child with a safe and stable environment. The overriding goal in every custody case is to find a parenting arrangement that best serves the child's needs.

In one Tennessee case, a higher court reversed a trial court's decision to award joint custody to a mentally ill father. The father suffered from major mental health issues, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, irrational fears, and extreme anxiety issues. The trial court determined that awarding custody to the father was not in the child's best interests, because his mental illness negatively impacted the child. Specifically, the father's phobias prevented him from taking his daughter on vacations, and he constantly searched the daughter's backpack and lunch box.

A parent's drug or alcohol abuse can also affect custody. Habitual drunkenness or substance abuse can render a parent incapable of properly caring for a child. A court will place limits on a parent's visitation until he or she can show emotional stability and ensure a child's safety. In some cases, a court will order supervised visitation, which means the parent can only visit the child while a third party (a friend, grandparent, or county worker) is supervising to make sure the child is not in any danger.

Can a Judge Terminate a Mentally Ill Parent's Rights?

The decision to terminate a parental rights is not taken lightly and typically reserved for only the most extreme case. A judge must have clear and convincing evidence of parental unfitness before severing a parent's legal rights. Even then, a judge will only terminate rights if it will serve a child's best interests. In Tennessee, a judge may terminate parental rights in any of the following instances:

  • the parent abandoned the child for a significant period of time
  • the child was removed from the parent's care and the parent has failed to communicate with the child for at least six months
  • the parent refuses to remedy the conditions which led to the child's removal from the home for at least six months
  • the parent committed serious child abuse against the child or the child's sibling
  • the parent is incarcerated for more than two years for conduct against the child
  • the parent murdered or was found civilly liable for the death of the child's other parent, and
  • the parent is mentally incompetent and unable to provide adequate care or supervision of the child.

In one Tennessee case, a mentally ill mother lost her parental rights because she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and refused to address her mental illness or substance abuse issues. The child had been severely neglected in the mother's care, and the court determined that she was unlikely to provide adequate care for the child in the future.

Impact of Mental Health Issues on Support

Mental health issues will likely affect you or your spouse's support obligation. A spouse with debilitating mental health issues may be expected to earn less and may require alimony. However, mental illness is not an excuse to avoid paying a child support obligation. In some circumstances, a court may garnish a mentally ill parent's disability or Social Security benefit payments to pay child support.

Will a Court Grant an Annulment from a Mentally Impaired Spouse?

Under Tennessee law, a marriage license shouldn't be issued when one spouse is drunk or mentally impaired. Nevertheless, a healthy spouse can obtain an annulment from a mentally incapacitated spouse. A spouse's insanity or mental incapacity must exist at the time of marriage and both spouses must be living. Additionally, a guardian can seek an annulment on behalf of a mentally impaired spouse.

In one Tennessee case, a judge denied a request to annul a marriage between a healthy and mentally and physically incompetent spouse. A guardian can bring an action on behalf of an incapacitated spouse. Yet, in this case, the incapacitated spouse was disqualified from an annulment because he'd ratified the marriage by continuing to cohabitate during his mentally lucid periods.

No two marriages are the same. A spouse's mental health struggles will impact each divorce differently. A judge will look at the unique circumstances of your case. If you have additional questions about the effects of mental health issues in divorce on Tennessee, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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