How Does Substance Abuse Affect Divorce Proceedings?

Substance abuse is never a pleasant phenomenon. When it occurs within a family, it can cause deep and serious divisions, as well as permanent damage if not dealt with effectively. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people end up divorcing substance abuser who can’t or won’t change their ways. In many cases, this is the best thing to do, however painful, as it limits the chances of serious harm coming to other family members (either physically, psychologically, or both). If you’re divorcing or considering divorcing a partner, and substance abuse is a factor, here’s a quick guide to what you can expect from the law:

Fault Grounds

In the past, it used to be the case that one partner could only divorce another if there was provable ‘cuplability’ – i.e. the divorcee had palpably broken the contract of marriage via adultery or some other such misdemeanor. Now, however, people can get non fault-based divorces on the grounds of ‘irreconcilable differences’. This tends to be the easiest and most amicable option available, and is thus popular with divorcing couples. However, it does also require a degree of agreement and cooperation, which can be an issue when substances are in play. Most - although not all - states still allow the old-style fault-based divorces, which let one partner divorce the other, citing the fault of their partner and extricating themselves from the marriage with or without their partner’s consent. Of course, this kind of thing does have the potential to make an already harrowing situation more traumatic, but it’s worth noting that, in cases where substance abuse and associated issues (violence, for example) are cited, the sober partner tends to get the upper hand. Which may not seem like an important factor to consider, but where things like custody of children need to be considered, it can actually be crucial.

Child Custody

Substance abuse is a very important factor to consider when child custody is decided. Even if the non-sober spouse is repentant, and has agreed to go through safe, medically supervised withdrawal, many partners may be wary of their reverting to their old ways – particularly if repenting and relapsing occurs in a pattern. As such, it’s important for legal teams to hear details of the addicted partner’s history with substances, however painful it may be to bring out these revelations. As parental substance abuse is known to seriously affect not only parenting ability but child development, courts tend to look closely at substance abuse issues within a divorce and custody case. Unless the sober parent has some other serious parenting impediment, courts tend to award custody to the sober parent. However, this does not mean that the substance abusing parent never gets to see their children. Courts will work out visitation rights carefully, often (circumstances depending) allowing liberal visitation rights if the addict parent is committed to sobriety (and sustains this commitment) – albeit with certain safeguards put in place. If an addicted parent vows to get sober, courts may incentivise and enforce this by ordering that the parent in question checks in at rehab, or AA, or NA, at regular intervals. Failure to do so will result in loss of visitation rights. Sometimes, medical checkups may be required for visitations to occur. Should an addicted parent be deemed a danger to their children, however, most courts will have no hesitation in severely restricting or outright banning access.

Property Issues

The division of property will only be mitigated by substance abuse if the abuser’s behavior demonstrably had an effect on the couple’s finances. For example, if the addicted partner depleted the marital estate in order to fund their habit, the courts may award a larger share of jointly owner property to the sober spouse as a form of compensation. However, this is by no means guaranteed, and greatly depends on the inclination of the court.

Emotional Issues

By far the most challenging aspect of a substance abuse-related divorce is the emotional aspect. Many people believe that they are ‘abandoning’ or ‘failing’ a substance abuser by divorcing them, leading to awful feelings of guilt - even when the situation has become not only untenable but dangerous. It can be a very painful wrench, which brings up a whole host of negative emotions. Emotional resilience and coping with the psychological fallout of this kind of thing is tough, and may well require professional help. Any good law firm should be more than aware of the trauma this process can cause, and go to some lengths to make the process as clear and pain-free as possible for you. However, it is always a good idea to surround yourself with a strong support network, and perhaps seek psychological aid in these cases nonetheless.

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