Divorce & Alcoholism: What Is a Court To Do?
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By Jason Levoy, Guest Author - January 04, 2016

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We already know that divorces are typically full of conflict and difficult to manage.

When you add another layer, like mental health issues or alcoholism, that can make the process much more tumultuous and challenging, especially for a court to work through.

In order to see the role a disease like alcoholism plays in a divorce, it’s important to understand the foundation a court typically uses when making decisions on custody and visitation.

When the court is presented with custody issues, it looks at several factors before making decisions.  In most states, there is a presumption of joint custody and equal parenting time unless circumstances dictate otherwise. 

In other words, both parents start on equal ground when the divorce begins with the presumption that each is entitled to joint custody and equal parenting time of the children.  

The specific laws on custody and visitation time differ depending on the state you live in, but one of the more common methods for determining custody issues is what’s referred to as “the best interest of the children” standard.

This standard allows courts to make all custody and visitation decisions based on what it feels is in the best interest of the children.

Courts will consider a lot of factors when it comes to custody.  Each state is different, but some of the more common factors include the following:

  • The overall fitness of each parent
  • The parent’s ability to communicate and agree on issues regarding the children
  • History of domestic violence
  • The children’s relationship with the parents
  • The safety of the children from either parent and/or abuse
  • The stability of the home environment
  • The quality of time spent with the children prior to the separation/divorce
  • The parents’ employment responsibilities
  • The needs of the children

If the law presumes both parents start on equal footing, the only way to deviate from that presumption one parent has to give the court a reason.  One reason may be alcoholism. 

How Can Alcoholism Affect Custody Decisions?

Alcoholism is a disease.  I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but a prominent theme with people who suffer from alcoholism is an inability to control how much they drink, which is why the number one method of prevention is abstinence.  When alcohol is removed from the situation, someone dealing with alcoholism is hopefully able to lead a normal life. 

For a court, the issue of alcoholism can be a tricky one.  Let’s take two hypothetical examples and see how a court might handle each situation.

Example 1

Dad suffers from alcoholism.  During the contested divorce, dad seeks joint legal custody of the children with a 50/50 parenting time arrangement.  Mom opposes this and seeks sole custody of two children based on dad’s alcoholism, claiming it’s a danger to the children and he can’t be trusted alone to care for them. 

Dad openly admits to his problems, but is in a treatment program and never has any incidents with the police or anyone else involving drinking or putting the children in danger.  He holds a steady job and is otherwise a fine parent. 

He hasn’t had a relapse in more than a year and regularly participates in a treatment program to keep him in check.  Here, a court might conclude that although dad does suffer from alcoholism, the disease is under control and he poses no danger to the children.

Since there is no actual danger to the children from dad, the court awards joint custody and equal parenting time. 

Example 2

Let’s use the same facts as the first example except for this one Dad has had multiple relapses in the last two years and has even been arrested for public intoxication, although he was not in the presence of the children at the time. 

The children have never been harmed while in Dad’s care.  Dad is open about his alcoholism, but swears he has it under control and agrees to go into a treatment program again. 

He claims he never drinks when caring for the kids and there is no reason not to give him equal parenting rights in the divorce. 

Mom claims she has had to call the police multiple times because Dad was drunk at home and she was concerned about the kids, but she never filed for a restraining order against Dad and there was never a subsequent court proceeding. 

In this situation, a court might say that Dad’s disease is not under control and therefore there is a legitimate concern regarding the safety of the children when they are in his care.  

The evidence of his recent relapses along with that of his arrest is enough for a court to award joint legal custody but primary physical custody to Mom, until Dad can prove he has been sober for a period of time and regularly participates in a treatment program that includes progress reports sent directly to the Judge for review. 

The court might be so concerned about the children’s safety that it even orders supervised parenting time with Dad and alcohol monitoring to ensure the children are safe when in his presence.

So What Does This Mean?

The court shouldn’t punish a parent by taking away custody or parenting time because that parent suffers from a disease.  However, if that disease might put the children in harm’s way, or call into question the parent’s ability to care for them, that may be enough to limit parenting time and/or award sole custody to the other parent.

With alcoholism, it all depends on how the parent with the disease is controlling it and managing his or her life.  If the parent can prove that they have not had drank in a long time, participate in a treatment program, and have never put the children in danger because of the disease, alcoholism should not be a reason to restrict parenting time. 

However, like in Example 2, if the parent suffering from alcoholism is shown to not have it under control and there is enough evidence to question the children’s safety while in the parent’s care, a court has enough to revoke or limit custody and parenting time until the disease does not put the children in danger.

There is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to a parent suffering from alcoholism.  As with most things when it comes to divorce, every case is different and the facts will affect that particular family’s custody arrangement.

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