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How Mental Health Can Affect Every Part of a Divorce


A recent study out of Denmark found that divorce can negatively affect people’s physical and mental health, especially when the divorce was high-conflict. The researchers concluded that “providing assistance to divorcees who experience higher levels of divorce conflict immediately following divorce, [could] reduce potential long-term negative health effects of divorce.”

The opposite premise – that physical and/or mental health concerns may lead to divorce – may also be true. Research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that couples are more likely to divorce if the wife develops a serious illness than if a husband does, whereas research published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandanavia in 2011 showed that certain mental health issues – most notably depression and alcohol abuse – are linked to divorce.

So, why does this data matter? Because certain mental health conditions affect how people interact with one another. As such, many couples in which one or both spouses (and/or the children) live with mental illness could benefit from family or individual counseling or therapy before, during, or after the divorce. Poor communication is a leading cause for divorce in general, and having a neutral third-party there to help divorcing spouses communicate their feelings and frustrations may help ease some of the tensions.

Could mental health concerns affect child custody?

The primary concern of any family law judge is the best interests of the children. As such, mental health concerns can affect child custody in many ways:

  • If a parent struggles with addiction, especially if that addiction has led to incarceration, he or she may be denied custody. In extreme cases, one parent may petition to have the other parent deemed unfit, or try to have a parent’s ability to visit the child effectively ended.
  • If a parent is abusive, violent, or neglectful because of his or her illness, he or she could also be denied custody or be forced into supervised visitation with their children.
  • If the child is diagnosed with a mental health condition, especially ones that requires residential care or specialized treatment, it could affect a judge’s decision regarding legal custody – the ability to make decisions concerning the child’s care.

All of these scenarios could potentially affect child support, too, though that is an entirely separate issue from child custody.

Having a mental health condition or disorder is certainly not “proof” of unfit parenting. One can no more be denied custody because of a mental illness than one could for needing a wheelchair or having diabetes. Parents have a right to spend time with their children, and that right does not go away because of a diagnosis.

Could mental health affect spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is typically set for a specific period of time, though the courts do grant lifetime awards. There are multiple factors which could affect support obligations, but if one spouse is unable to work as a result of a medical condition, the other spouse may be ordered to pay more in support than they otherwise would have.

Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP represents clients in all matter of domestic relations law. We guide you through the process, keeping your best interests in mind. To schedule a consultation with one of our Manhattan divorce attorneys, please call us at (212) 466-6015, or reach out to us through our contact form today. We proudly serve clients throughout New York City, Westchester, and Bergen County, NJ.