If you’ve spent any amount of time married to an alcoholic, and you are ready to divorce, you are no stranger to frustration and emotional pain. And as hard as divorces can be, those who decide to separate from their alcoholic spouse often feel a sense of relief as they prepare to embark on a new chapter of their lives, away from the emotional drain of a person dealing with addiction.
This article was written to discuss some of the issues a person might face when the time comes to divorce an alcoholic spouse.
As always, if you are thinking about filing for divorce, you should consult a good family attorney to help you navigate the process. If, after reading this article, you still have questions, consider contacting our office to schedule a consultation.
While different people define alcoholism differently, there is consensus among many medical and mental health professionals that alcoholism and other forms of addiction stem from an underlying disease. Factors, both genetic and environmental, can have an effect on whether the disease develops in certain people.
But alcoholism, unlike cancer or spinal meningitis, appears to the layperson be tied solely to the poor life choices or weak moral character of the alcohol abuser. This is one of the reasons why alcoholic behavior is so baffling to so many—including to alcoholics themselves.
The seemingly self-defeating behavior associated with alcoholism is one of the reasons it’s so difficult for alcoholics to seek treatment. A problem drinker might tell him or herself when sober, “I just need to manage my drinking better,” or “I need to exercise more will power.” Sadly, these thoughts melt away after the first sip of alcohol sets the cycle of addiction in motion once again.
Alcoholics, because of their drinking, often find themselves running afoul of employers, family members and the law. When drinking, the alcoholic family member might become obnoxious, verbally abusive, emotionally distant or physically violent.
People struggling with alcoholism have troubles even when they aren’t drinking. In some instances, their behavior can become more unpredictable when they’re sober. This is why the problem for many families is rarely solved when the alcoholic member puts the bottle down.
The effects of the disease stretch far beyond the alcoholic, causing problems for children, wives, husbands, close family and friends. Often times, children of an emotionally-distant alcoholic will view themselves as undeserving of their alcoholic parent’s love, or perhaps a spouse will blame him or herself for the alcoholic’s behavior. Sometimes, the spouse who doesn’t drink will become so frustrated with the alcoholic that he or she lashes out inappropriately at the children. This is why alcoholism is sometimes referred to as a family disease.
When Children Are Involved
As family attorneys, this is one of the most difficult scenarios we deal with. Watching adult family members deal with the fallout of life with an alcoholic is bad enough, but children are often deeply traumatized by the experience.
When a parent decides to divorce their alcoholic spouse, child custody can become a key point of contention. While the non-alcoholic parent may want the children to continue to have contact with the alcoholic parent, there may also be hesitation due to concerns of child safety.
In extreme cases, there is no question that the child’s safety is threatened when with the alcoholic parent. Deciding what type of custody is best for your children as you divorce your alcoholic spouse is an issue you’ll want to discuss with your attorney.
When making determinations on child custody, the court is guided by what is in the child’s best interest. To that end, it might be necessary to consider California Family Code § 3011(d), which states that when making a determination of the interest of a child the court must consider:
“The habitual or continual illegal use of controlled substances, the habitual or continual abuse of alcohol, or the habitual or continual abuse of prescribed controlled substances by either parent.”
In considering a parent’s alcohol use, the court may require independent corroborating evidence of the alcoholic spouse’s behavior. Such independent information might include police reports; child protective services reports, or reports or testimony from other public agencies or private non-profit organizations. In some cases, a substance abuse expert might be asked to provide testimony.
Child Custody Evaluator
When a spouse is particularly concerned about a child’s safety when in the presence of the alcoholic parent, it might become necessary to request that the court appoint a child custody evaluator. The court could also potentially appoint such an evaluator on its own.
A child custody evaluator will spend time interviewing the parents and children. They may even observe as the parents and children interact. Interviews with teachers, and other professionals may also be conducted.
Once this first phase is complete, the evaluator will write a report and present it to the court. This report will include recommendations on custody.
It’s important to remember that not every divorce case involving an alcoholic spouse will require a child custody evaluator. Whether or not you request an evaluation is something you should discuss with your family law attorney.
Financial Issues With High Functioning or Low Functioning Alcoholics
While it’s common for alcoholics to deal with financial issues, not every person who is an alcoholic has money troubles. There are any number of different financial scenarios that a person divorcing an alcoholic spouse might face.
For instance, some alcoholics are high functioning and serve as the family’s primary breadwinner. In these cases, problems can arise when the stress of the divorce leads to unpredictable or self-sabotaging behavior from the alcoholic. This could happen if the alcoholic decides he or she doesn’t want to pay spousal support. In addition to engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors at work, the alcoholic might also use delaying tactics to avoid paying ordered spousal support.
It also goes without saying that there are cases where the alcoholic’s earning power has been destroyed by his or her drinking. Perhaps the alcoholic has burned several bridges or is unable to hold down a job due to excessive alcohol consumption. Or perhaps he or she is so trapped in the throes of addiction that he or she is unable to even look for work.
While this situation is far from ideal, it may present an opportunity for the other spouse to leverage the problem drinker into a rehab facility.
If this happens at the time the other spouse files for divorce, it’s likely the court will award temporary sole custody to the non-alcoholic parent. If the non-alcoholic spouse is responsible for payment of the treatment, this could also have an effect on any spousal support ordered by the court.
Taking Care of Yourself
Living with an alcoholic is difficult. Divorcing an alcoholic is difficult. But how you respond to the stress of the situation could have an impact on the orders made by the court.
If you allow yourself to respond emotionally to the frustration caused by the alcoholic spouse, it could end up hurting your case in the long run. This is why it’s important that you look into taking steps to help you heal yourself.
This could involve seeking therapy, either for you or your children (or both). While such an option may not be an exciting prospect, it’s important to remember that life with an alcoholic can be traumatizing. Such trauma can have lasting impacts, long after the alcoholic spouse has left the home.
Additionally, the non-alcoholic spouse might look into non-profit groups such as Al-Anon. Known as a 12-step program, Lois Wilson, wife of Alcoholics Anonymous Founder Bill Wilson, founded Al-Anon in 1951. The program was designed to help families and friends of alcoholics recover from the experience.
The program is there to help folks whether or not the alcoholic in their lives recognizes he or she has a problem and needs help. Younger family members might benefit from involvement in Alateen.
Consult a Lawyer
Most divorces are going to be complicated to some extent. Divorces involving an alcoholic spouse are no exception. Chances are, if you’re a divorcing an alcoholic, your case will have some added difficulty. A good lawyer can have a significant impact on the progress of your case. If you have questions about divorcing an alcoholic spouse, or some other family law related issue, don’t hesitate to contact our office for more information.