Mental Health Issues and Divorce

Taking a look at the impact of mental health issues on your divorce case.

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School
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When filing for divorce, the requesting spouse must state the "grounds" for divorce--or reason for the breakup of the couple's marriage. If you're seeking a divorce from your spouse based on fault grounds, you must prove abuse, neglect, incurable insanity, adultery, abandonment or other fault grounds recognized by your state.

Obtaining a no-fault divorce, on the other hand, is typically a simpler process and doesn't require you to prove the cause of your divorce. Virtually every state recognizes "no fault" grounds where a couple can simply plead that irreconcilable differences led to the marriage's breakdown.

However, if you're seeking a divorce due to a spouse's severe mental health issues, you may want to file for a fault-based divorce. In certain circumstances, you could be entitled to a larger share of marital assets or a higher support award if you're able to prove your spouse's mental health issues caused the marriage's breakdown. If you're unsure whether a fault or no-fault divorce is right for you, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Can My Spouse's Insanity Prevent Me from Obtaining a Divorce?

In criminal cases, insanity can act as a legal defense to certain criminal charges. However, the rules of criminal procedure aren't applicable in divorce cases. You or your spouse can't avoid a divorce by pleading insanity. Nevertheless, a spouse's severe mental health issues may entitle that spouse to additional protections under the law, particularly if that spouse is housed in a mental health facility. In many states, a judge will appoint a guardian ad litem to represent a spouse who has debilitating mental health issues or is housed in a mental health facility to ensure that the ill spouse's legal interests are represented in a divorce.

How Will Mental Health Issues Affect Divorce Orders?

Either spouse's mental health issues can impact everything from property division to child custody. Different states have different laws and certain factors a judge should consider when issuing support awards or determining physical custody arrangements, but generally mental illness plays the biggest role in support and custody rulings.

Support Issues

A spouse's mental health issues may reduce or increase that spouse's share of the marital estate depending on your family's circumstances. Specifically, mental health issues can interfere with your ability to support yourself or your family. A judge may award you additional alimonyor a larger share of marital property or assets if your mental health prohibits you from working or makes it difficult to hold a job. Alternatively, if a spouse's untreated mental illness is the cause of your divorce, a judge may increase the stable spouse's alimony or support awards as a result.

Keep in mind, your own or your spouse's mental health issues won't let you escape your child support obligations. Parents have a legal duty to physically, finally and emotionally support their children regardless of that parent's mental health status.

Custody Issues

No single factor is determinative in a custody case. In other words, mental health issues won't necessarily make or break your case. Instead, a judge will evaluate your family's overall circumstances to determine the custody arrangement best suited to your child's needs.

A parent's mental health issues are just one of many factors that a judge will consider in your case. For example, the following are relevant to a child's best interests:

  • the child's age, developmental status and needs
  • the child's relationship with each parent
  • each parent's ability to meet the child's needs and provide stability
  • each parent's age, physical and emotional health
  • the child's adjustment to school and the community
  • the child's relationship with siblings and extended family members
  • either parent's history of domestic violence
  • each parent's willingness to allow a relationship between the child and the child's other parent, and
  • any other relevant factor.

A judge will consider the above factors and many more. Parents with more severe mental health issues may face greater barriers to obtaining custody. Your family's unique circumstances will affect how much of an impact a spouse's mental health issues have on your case.

Can I Lose My Parental Rights Due to Mental Health Issues?

Under extreme circumstances, a mentally ill parent may lose his or her parental rights. Generally, parental right terminations are granted only as a last resort and when a child's best interests demand it. Each state has its own rules, but generally a court won't terminate a mentally ill parent's rights unless certain criteria is met. For example, Texas law allows a judge to terminate a mentally ill parent's rights under the following circumstances:

  • the mental illness makes it impossible for the parent to meet the child's physical or emotional needs
  • the parent's mental illness is permanent
  • the child has been placed outside of the parent's care for at least 6 months
  • reunifications with the parent have been unsuccessful, and
  • the termination of parental rights serves the child's best interests.

For states that have enacted laws similar to Texas' laws regarding mental health issues in divorce, a judge wouldn't be able to terminate a stable parent's rights simply because of bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues. Terminations are only appropriate in the most extreme circumstances where it's clear that a parent will never be able to meet a child's needs – and that's a pretty extreme requirement.

Most individuals who have well-managed mental health issues will find that their mental health has little impact on a divorce. For more questions about the impact of mental health issues in your case, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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