Mental Health Issues and Divorce in Washington

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

By , Attorney

Mental illness comes in many forms and will affect every divorce differently. If you and your spouse have children and mental health issues, child custody will be impacted. Each parent's mental health plays a major role in custody cases. This article provides an overview of the effects of mental health issues in divorce in Washington. If after reading this article you have questions, please contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Divorce Grounds

When you file for divorce in Washington, your divorce petition must explain the "grounds" or reason your marriage is ending. Every state recognizes "no-fault" divorces based on "irreconcilable differences," meaning your marriage simply isn't working. Many states also recognize "fault" divorces, where one spouse claims that the divorce is the other's fault because of some "bad" conduct, including adultery, neglect, and abuse.

Washington is a strictly no-fault divorce state. In other words, you can't blame your spouse for the breakup of the marriage. However, a judge can consider a spouse's fault when deciding alimony and property division. In Washington, a healthy spouse can obtain a divorce from a mentally ill spouse. Unlike criminal law, a spouse can't raise insanity as a defense to avoid divorce.

Impact of Mental Health Issues on Child Custody

Each parent's mental health issues, or lack thereof, are central to a custody case. A parent's emotional stability is relevant to a child's best interests. A judge's goal in a custody proceeding is to fashion a visitation arrangement that best serves a child's emotional and physical needs.

In one Washington case, a trial court wrongly awarded custody to a mentally ill mother. The higher court reversed the trial court's decision after discovering that the mother had attempted suicide three times and spent several months in mental hospitals. Notably, the court held that a parent's mental disturbances can make the parent unfit to have custody.

Drug or alcohol abuse can be just as debilitating as mental illness to a parent's emotional health. A parent who is overcome by addiction won't be able to parent a child and may have limitations place on his or her custody rights. By contrast, a minor bout of depression or obsessive-compulsive tendencies won't affect a parent's eligibility for custody. A parent who successfully manages his or her mental health challenges may even receive primary custody in some cases.

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

Terminating parental rights is only appropriate in the most extreme circumstances. While a child's best interests are paramount to a custody decision, a judge must also consider a parent's rights. In cases of severe abuse or neglect, a court will sever a parent's rights to his or her child. The following are grounds for terminating a parent's rights in Washington:

  • the parent regularly abuses drugs or alcohol to the extent he or she can't care for the child
  • the parent suffers from debilitating mental deficiency or mental illness
  • the parent willfully neglected the child for an extended period of time
  • the parent-child relationship endangers the child
  • the parent committed murder or attempted murder against the child's other parent
  • the parent committed felony assault against the child or the child's sibling, or
  • the parent is incarcerated for an extended time.

In one Washington case, two paranoid schizophrenic parents lost their legal rights to their daughter. The parents were both hospitalized for mental health issues shortly before the child's birth and struggled with mental health issues in the years following. The parents' rights were terminated when the child was five because clear and convincing evidence showed that the parents were mentally unstable and unable to provide day-to-day treatment for their child.

Impact of Mental Health Issues on Support

You or your spouse's mental health issues will affect support. In one Washington case, the court increased a husband's alimony obligation because the wife's depression had worsened since the couple's divorce. The court reasoned that the wife's mental health struggles made it impossible for her to hold a job and she needed additional support. In other cases, mental health challenges won't alleviate a parent from his or her child support obligation. A court can garnish a mentally ill parent's disability and social security checks in some situations.

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

A spouse can seek an annulment from his or her mentally incompetent spouse while both are living. Likewise, a spouse can seek an annulment based on his or her own insanity. A spouse's insanity must exist at the time the couple married in order to void the marriage. Any children born as a result of the marriage will be considered legitimate even if the marriage is later deemed void.

In one Washington case, the court annulled a one-day marriage between a physician and a nurse. A physician husband filed an annulment action based on his insanity after he was restored to competency. The court determined the husband's stress and sleeping medications made him insane at the time of marriage even though he did not suffer from regular mental illness or a limited mental capacity.

Every marriage is affected differently by a spouse's mental health struggles. In a divorce, a judge will consider the unique facts of your case. If you have additional questions about the impact of mental health issues on divorce in Washington, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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