Those who are impacted by mental illness—whether personally, or indirectly, through a loved one—know that these unique issues don’t respect boundaries. The effects of mental illnesses (such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and addiction) stretch across every aspect of life, affecting everything from the everyday, to the atypical, including divorce.
Which is why it’s so important to address how mental health and divorce interact. Not just in terms of how these issues might impact your split, but in how divorce, itself, might affect you.
In this article we’ll introduce some of the biggest questions that often arise when mental health and divorce collide, and outline how the right attorney can help you navigate these complex matters during your California divorce.
Mental Illness and Filing for Divorce
Many clients wonder whether the mere existence of a mental illness—either in themselves, or their partner—will prevent them from securing a divorce.
The answer is a firm no.
While “insanity” is a legitimate defense to criminal charges, it will not prevent you from getting a divorce from a mentally ill spouse. This is because family law (including divorce) falls under civil court jurisdiction, not criminal court. Hence, the same defenses don’t apply.
California courts will never force you to stay married, just because your spouse suffers from a mental illness.
Mental Illness and Marriage Annulment
Mental capacity is a key element to negotiating any valid contract, and this includes a marriage contract. This essentially means that both parties know what they’re doing (getting married), and that they are both old enough to make that decision (in California, eighteen).
Without this mental capacity—say, if you’re too drunk, too high, or underage to know what you’re doing—it’s possible to get a marriage annulled. And it’s definitely possible to see how a mental health crisis might prevent someone from having adequate mental capacity for marriage.
However, in order for an annulment to stick, you can’t have gotten better after the marriage. Hence, if the individual had a mental illness, but then recovered and lived freely in a marital relationship afterwards, then a judge will not annul the marriage.
Mental Illness and Grounds for Divorce
Mental health issues often come up when couples cite their grounds for divorce.
In legal speak, your “grounds” tell the judge why you want to get divorced. Grounds are a required part of your divorce complaint, and in some jurisdictions, can be used to assign blame to one spouse for breaching the marriage contract.
Grounds that request some kind of guilt be placed on one party or the other are called “fault” grounds. Grounds that do not attempt to assign blame are called “no-fault” grounds.
California is a solidly, no-fault divorce state, meaning judges will not consider fault when dividing marital assets or alimony. Instead, couples filing for divorce must choose between one of two no-fault divorce options:
- Irreconcilable differences
- Incurable insanity
1. Irreconcilable Differences
Irreconcilable differences essentially mean that you are no longer able to reconcile with one another, and want out. When filing this way, neither party needs to back up this claim with proof, and no one is held liable for the breakup.
Because it’s so quick and painless, this is by far the most common grounds cited for divorce in California.
2. Incurable Insanity
Incurable insanity, on the other hand, is rarely cited as grounds for divorce, since the burden of proof is so high. In order to file under these grounds, you must show that your spouse lacks legal capacity.
Legal incapacity occurs when someone doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to make decisions, and may manifest as:
- An inability to stay alert and attentive;
- An inability to process information (such as memory or communication);
- A detachment from reality (such as the existence of delusions or hallucinations); or,
- An inability to control mood and affect.
Not only must you provide proof from multiple physicians that these elements exist, but these experts must also testify that your spouse is unlikely to ever recover. Which—considering the unpredictable nature of mental illness—is a very difficult diagnosis to procure.
Furthermore, when mental illness really is that severe, your judge will need to assign your spouse a guardian, who will look out for their interests during divorce process.
Because of all these complexities, most couples choose to simply file for irreconcilable differences, instead.
Mental illness does not directly influence decisions about child custody. However, depending on the condition—as well as the severity of the symptoms—it’s possible that mental health could still indirectly influence custody.
This is because in California, custody decisions are made according to the best interest of the child. Here, everything from primary residence, visitation, and child support are determined based on which outcome will serve a child’s long-term health and happiness the best. This is done by weight a number of individualized factors, including:
- The child’s age and preference (if old enough);
- The child’s health and need for stability;
- The child’s relationship with each parent;
- Each parent’s ability to care for their child; as well as,
- Any history of domestic violence, abuse, or neglect.
As you can see, while mental illness isn’t a direct consideration, it can still significantly contribute to many of these factors. Especially when it comes to violence and neglect, or if the mental illness prevents the parent from providing a stable home for their child (such is often the case with drug and alcohol abuse).
Regardless of the circumstances, the court will put the child’s needs above all else, while maintaining parental rights as best as possible within that scope.
Mental Illness and Property Division
Since California is a no-fault divorce state, it’s unlikely that mental illness will have any impact on the division of marital property.
California is a community property state, which means that anything acquired after marriage belongs to both spouses equally—regardless of whose name is on the paycheck, deed, loan, or card. Hence, without fault to influence this decision, all of this shared property will be divided equally, upon divorce.
Mental Illness and Alimony
In some cases, mental illness affects a spouse’s ability to hold down a job, post-divorce. These individuals may struggle to make ends meet, and to maintain their marital standard of living, once divorced.
In these situations, the court may require the stable spouse to make spousal support payments to help out. Though, the court is highly unlikely to require this when the mental illness is related to alcohol or drug abuse.
Mental Health During Divorce
When it comes to divorce, it’s not just about how preexisting conditions can affect your breakup. It’s also about the way the breakup affects your mental health.
Divorce is an extremely stressful and emotional process—even for people who don’t have mental health problems. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re mindful of your own equilibrium throughout the entire divorce process.
For some people, maintaining good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and exercising are adequate. Others might benefit from therapy. Parents, especially, shouldn’t neglect themselves in this regard, since it’s difficult to support a child’s emotional needs when you aren’t taking care of yourself.
If you need additional resources, your attorney can assist you in finding qualified therapists and programs that can help your family through this transition.
Divorce Attorneys in California
Whether you are dealing with your own demons, or the mental illness of a loved one, mental health struggles are never easy. That’s why it’s important to have an attorney understands your needs, and can address your unique needs.
If you have more questions about mental health and divorce, we want to hear from you. Call Maples Family Law at (209) 989-4425, or get in touch online, and let us help you navigate these matters with the sensitivity and gravitas you deserve.