March 16, 2022
Substance abuse has become a significant problem throughout the United States. According to the National Center For Drug Abuse Statistics, over 700,000 drug overdose deaths happened in the United States in the past 20 years. Over ten million Americans misuse opioids at least once a year. The National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 14.5 million Americans over the age of twelve recently suffered from Alcohol Use Disorder.
Further, researchers are still learning how the coronavirus pandemic affected substance abuse patterns in the U.S. Current information shows the likelihood of more adults suffering from substance abuse due to the stress of COVID-19. Stressful life events – such as divorce – can significantly increase the odds of triggering substance abuse.
There are many ways that a spouse’s substance abuse can affect a divorce. Some of these effects are procedural, while others affect the substantive legal rights of the divorcing spouses. Divorcing spouses can better protect their legal rights if they understand how substance abuse will affect their divorce proceedings and if they have support from the right St. Petersburg divorce attorney.
How Substance Abuse Affects Divorce Procedures
A substance abuse problem can create logistical difficulties in resolving a divorce case. These changes will not necessarily affect a spouse’s substantive legal rights, but they can make the process more difficult and add to the time and expense it takes to resolve the case.
The Time It Takes To Resolve Your Divorce
There are many reasons why a substance abuse problem can make a divorce case take longer. First, it might be necessary for one spouse to seek treatment before participating in the divorce process. Each spouse must be sober and informed before they can consent to a settlement. Second, the recovery process is ongoing, and setbacks can occur.
If a spouse has a relapse, this can lead to physical symptoms (withdrawal tremors or seizures) or behavioral symptoms (anger and violence). These treatment setbacks can also lead to setbacks in the legal process. While delays are frustrating, they will not completely prevent a successful divorce.
Mediation and Arbitration
In some states, spouses must attend mediation or arbitration before their divorce case can proceed to trial. These methods of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) encourage spouses to work out a divorce settlement on their own. ADR is also faster and more cost-efficient than litigating a divorce through to trial. Despite the benefits, ADR is not appropriate for every divorce case.
Substance abuse can make the process pointless if it prevents a spouse from participating in it fully. Substance abuse can even make it unsafe for others to participate in the process: if one spouse is drunk or high, their behavior may be unpredictable, and everyone in the room might be in danger. The court might not require a spouse to go through ADR in these circumstances. The divorce process might take longer, but it is worth it to be safe.
Safety is an issue that comes up long before divorce proceedings start. When substance abuse endangers a family, one spouse might need a protective order (sometimes called a restraining order). This order can prevent a person suffering from substance abuse from seeing their spouse or children.
If a court issued a protective order when a spouse files a divorce, it will separate the parties throughout the legal process. Each party will enter and leave the courtroom separately. A bailiff will be present to help keep them apart. The spouse who has the protective order will not have to participate in ADR (though they can choose to).
Experienced divorce lawyers know how to keep procedures in place to protect their client’s physical safety while also protecting their legal rights throughout the divorce process.
How Substance Abuse Affects Substantive Legal Issues
It is not just divorce procedures that are affected by substance abuse. Divorce also affects each spouse’s substantive legal rights, and substance abuse can affect the overall outcome of a divorce. A spouse who suffers from substance abuse might find that it impacts their parental rights and property rights.
#1. Child Custody
Substance abuse is a factor in more and more child removal cases when parents lose custody rights, as the number of these cases has doubled over the past 20 years. Removal cases due to substance abuse were only 18.5 percent of all removals in 2000. By 2019, that figure was up to 38.9 percent.
These statistics are specific to cases where the government removes children from a parent’s custody due to welfare concerns. Child custody disputes in divorce cases do not always involve welfare authorities, but they raise important questions about substance abuse and custody.
Whenever a judge must resolve child custody matters, they must determine what is in the child’s best interests. A parent’s current substance abuse issue is always relevant to this determination. Even evidence of past substance abuse might be relevant if the judge wants to ensure the problem does not persist and hurt the child.
A parent might have to submit to random drug testing, undergo supervised visitation, or have other restrictions on their parental rights. A court can also award full custody to the other parent if it is in the child’s best interest. Often, this is a temporary order, and a parent can have these restrictions removed over time as they prove their sobriety. If the substance abuse problem persists, the restrictions can be permanent.
A parent who seeks full custody due to the other parent’s substance abuse must be ready to prove the problem to the court. An experienced divorce lawyer will not only prepare the right evidence to make a persuasive case to the judge, but they will also know how to design custody requests that will best protect the children.
#2. Child Support
The state calculates child support by comparing each parent’s income and their time with the child. If parents have equal incomes and parenting time, there will be no child support order. In practice, this is rarely the case, so the parent with higher income will often have to pay child support to the parent with lower income. The calculations can change when one parent suffers from substance abuse disorder.
Substance abuse affects a family’s finances in many ways. A person might not be as successful at work when battling addiction, meaning less income earned. Substance abuse can prevent one spouse from keeping a job at all, which can deprive the other parent of the support they need.
A judge might “impute income” to that parent in this situation. Imputed income is income that the parent did not earn but could earn if they choose to. A court imputes income to one parent to prevent them from avoiding child support when they should have employment. Imputed income can also ensure that a parent with higher earning power does not get out of paying child support due to substance abuse.
Substance abuse can also affect alimony calculations. Unlike child support calculations, alimony orders are much more subjective. Divorce courts can grant or deny alimony in various circumstances, meaning that influential factors – such as substance abuse – have a greater effect on alimony calculations.
Alimony works as follows:
- Alimony (also called spousal support or spousal maintenance) depends on one spouse’s ability to pay and the other spouse’s need for alimony. The spouse seeking alimony must prove both.
- Once a spouse proves they are eligible for alimony, the court will determine how much they will receive and for how long. Courts must specifically tailor alimony orders to the recipient’s needs. A spouse who must pay alimony can challenge the amount or the duration to reduce their financial obligation.
- It is rare for courts to grant permanent alimony. Instead, judges might order support for a specific time. The length of alimony can coincide with the length of the marriage or a specific need (if the recipient is going back to school, alimony might last for the length of the program).
- Spouses can challenge alimony after the divorce is over. The paying spouse can ask the court to reduce support – or even terminate it entirely – based on a change in circumstances.
How does substance abuse affect these determinations?
First, the court will not award alimony to subsidize a person’s addiction. A higher-earning spouse may get out of paying alimony by proving the funds are likely to fuel an addiction. The higher-earning spouse can also prove that the lower-earning spouse should be working and earning more money if not for their substance abuse. (This is the same concept of “imputed income” as in child support matters.)
On the other side, a lower-earning spouse can allege the higher-earning spouse can earn even more if not for substance abuse. Whether a spouse is seeking alimony or trying to avoid paying, evidence of the other spouse’s addiction might affect the court’s rulings.
#4. Property Division
Divorce courts are courts of equity. As a result, they strive to make fair orders – not necessarily equal ones. This principle is the driving force behind property division in divorce, and the court does not split everything right down the middle. Instead, the judge will try to divide property fairly under the circumstances. Substance abuse is a circumstance that can change the court’s opinion on what is “fair.”
Addiction almost always causes financial harm to a family. Selling off personal property, raiding retirement accounts, raiding home equity, wasting paychecks, or running up credit cards can fund substance abuse. A divorce must divide all of these are marital assets fairly.
If these assets are gone by the time of divorce, the court will consider this waste. Waste accrues to the spouse who caused it. The other spouse can receive all remaining marital assets to correct this imbalance. Debts that result from waste (such as a second mortgage or credit card balances) can also go to the spouse who caused them.
Are You Facing Divorce Involving Substance Abuse?
Substance abuse can have many different effects on divorce. It can make the process longer and more complicated. It can affect both spouse’s parenting and property rights.
Importantly, substance abuse can cause permanent damage to a family. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that an average of 8.7 million children in the U.S. live with a parent who had alcohol use disorder in the past year. An additional 2.1 million children live with a parent who engaged in illicit drug use in the past year. These children should not have to cope with the trauma of substance abuse on their own.
You should protect your legal rights in the divorce process, and you should also get help dealing with the lasting damage addiction causes. Do not underestimate the effect that addiction has on both parents and children. Professional legal advice can make the divorce process easier and less traumatic, but this is just one factor in rebuilding a life after a divorce.
How Your Divorce Lawyer Can Help
You do not have to face a complicated divorce alone. Many divorce lawyers handle cases involving a spouse with substance abuse issues, and they can help you map out the best course of action, given your circumstances.
When meeting with a divorce attorney in St. Petersburg, always be honest about substance abuse in your marriage. This is pertinent information to your divorce strategy, especially if your spouse is not working, is wasting assets, or should not have child custody.
Your divorce attorney will review all the circumstances of your case, including substance abuse concerns, and advise you what to expect during the process. This might include:
- Mediation might not be an option if your spouse is unreliable or uncooperative
- You might need to litigate certain issues like custody if your spouse does not admit their substance abuse
- You should keep a closer eye on financial records to identify over-spending or hiding assets by your spouse