If you’re married to a “crazy” person, it’s understandable that you want to get out. You may even need to get out for your own mental or physical safety. “’Til
death us do part” is a fine sentiment, but not as much practiced these days as in the past when the church and state enforced lifelong marriage. (Henry VIII had to start a new religion to get a divorce, and he was king of England!)
But “crazy” can mean a lot of things in this context, including actual mental illness. Sometimes you’re not allowed to divorce a spouse who’s legally insane. Regardless of your current emotions, you made a moral (or ethical, if you’re not religious) as well as legal commitment. It would be like abandoning someone because they had cancer.
Some people consider alcohol and substance abuse as forms of mental illness, or even an illness without further qualification. Even some staunch conservatives think addiction isn’t just a matter of weak character or a lack of self-control. Last year, Newt Gingrich wrote that “addiction is a chronic brain disease to which some people are genetically predisposed.”
Know Your State Laws
It can be just as difficult to live with someone who is addicted as one who is mentally ill, but the way courts treat the two is not always equal. And not every state has the same standards or rules. For starters, although every state now has some form of no-fault divorce, many also have fault divorce, and the grounds and requirements are open to interpretation.
Under most states’ no-fault statutes, such as Michigan’s, “spouses can’t sue for divorce based on the other’s mental illness or substance abuse problems,” says attorney Amy Castillo; other grounds may still be used, such as desertion or adultery.
In Maryland, insanity can be grounds for fault divorce (if your spouse is certified incurably insane for at least three years, by two or more psychiatrists) but abuse of drugs or alcohol may not be enough by itself. A judge might require that the couple try to reconcile after the addicted spouse tries to get clean and sober in one of the many drug rehabs in Maryland.
According to the firm of Reinstein, Glackin, Patterson & Herriott, however, there is an exception. “Where alcoholism or substance abuse results in a pattern of physical and/or emotional abuse, there will be sufficient evidence to award a divorce on the grounds of constructive desertion.” That’s when the addicted spouse’s conduct threatens the other spouse’s “safety, health and self respect,” causing her or him to flee the marital home and bed. Desertion or constructive desertion are grounds for a fault divorce.
Some judges view marriage as more sacrosanct than others, and are less willing to grant divorce if they don’t think the couple has exhausted other remedies, such as seeking treatment in mental health or drug rehabs. In Maryland, even no-fault divorce has requirements, such as living apart for at least a year, and with no sexual congress between the divorcing spouses.
If a couple married while one or the other spouse was temporarily mentally ill or intoxicated, an annulment may be granted, provided they stopped cohabiting once sanity or sobriety was restored.
If the spouse seeking a fault divorce is guilty of the same behavior of which they accuse the other spouse—excessive use of alcohol, abuse of prescription drugs, any use of illegal drugs—then according to Maryland law, two wrongs do make a right, or at least cancel each other out. When the spouse enabled or encouraged the other spouse’s addictive behavior by purchasing the abused substance, or if the abuse is in the past and the spouse forgave the other spouse, again, fault divorce can be denied.
In the case of incompetence because of mental illness or drug abuse, the court may appoint a legal advocate to watch out for the other spouse’s legal rights, which include property division, child custody and alimony. It’s a point in your favor if you seek help voluntarily, before the court orders it, at drug rehabs in Maryland, Michigan or elsewhere.
Michigan attorney Aaron Thomas wrote that “a substance abuse issue may either reduce or increase an alimony award, depending on the circumstances.” According to the court decision on the 2008 Michigan Court of Appeals, Wright v. Wright, “The main objective of alimony is to balance the incomes and needs of the spouses in a way that will not impoverish either spouse,” and on “what is just and reasonable under the circumstances of the case.”
In Maryland there are three types of alimony: temporary, rehabilitative and indefinite. In the case of a spouse who’s mentally ill or addicted, and thus unable to keep a job, alimony might be ordered temporarily until that spouse is capable of self-sufficiency. If drug rehab is necessary to make the spouse self-supporting, then rehabilitative alimony may be ordered. If for reasons of mental illness the spouse is not may never be able to hold onto a job, indefinite (or, in some jurisdictions, permanent) alimony may be ordered.
On the other hand, “A court may decide to award a larger share of the marital estate and/or reimbursement alimony to the sober spouse, particularly if the addicted spouse’s substance abuse issues negatively impacted the couple’s finances,” such as by spending a lot of the couple’s money on drugs.
Custody and Visitation
Physical or legal custody of children is supposed to be based on balancing the best interests of the child with the parents’ rights. Factors considered include the fitness, stability, and mental health of the parents, and what kind of role model they are based on their lifestyles. Excessive use of alcohol, abuse of prescription drugs, any use of illegal drugs, and a history of mental or emotional illness (depression, threatening or attempting suicide) are among these factors.
Visitation likewise can be affected by substance abuse. Restrictions, sometimes temporary, may include banning overnight or unsupervised visitation (requiring that a third-party, perhaps a professional, be present), submitting the spouse to drug/alcohol tests, or treatment in religious or non religious addiction recovery centers. Banning all visitation and even terminating the spouse’s custodial rights also is possible, though that is rare.
One way to get a more favorable settlement is to negotiate privately before you end up in front of a judge. In 2008 People magazine reported that actor Bill Murray was sued for divorce by his wife Jennifer Butler Murray “on the grounds of drug addiction, physical abuse, adultery and abandonment. She also requested a restraining order.” Specifically she said he abused alcohol and marijuana, flew overseas without telling her so he could have affairs, and at least once struck her in the face while saying she was lucky he didn’t kill her.
A month later, the Murrays reached a divorce settlement in which she received $7 million in a lump settlement as their pre-nuptial agreement had stipulated (but no alimony), two homes, primary custody of their four children, plus child support. She withdrew the abuse charge.
The bottom line is, if you’re an alcohol or drug abuser and are married with children, you still have rights, but they are likely to be severely circumscribed if you don’t get treatment
and get straight.
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