Family law disputes are often stressful, and if one partner struggles in mental health or substance addiction, stress increases. New Jersey law takes cases of mental illness into special consideration, and as with any divorce or family law issue, all parties are entitled to legal rights.
A frequent concern in these cases is the interest of any children who might be involved in a custody dispute. While a parent doesn’t automatically lose parental rights due to substance addiction or mental illness, the court ensures that child safety and well-being are covered in custody orders.
The court also considers a party’s mental health regarding property division and spousal support. In cases of severe mental illness, steps are taken to ensure that all parties understand the proceedings.
Whether it’s you or the other party who’s struggling with mental health, a New Jersey family law attorney can help you understand your rights. These cases are complicated, and judges may not always be sensitive to the issues involved. A compassionate and experienced lawyer can work to protect you and your children.
Mental Illness and Causes for Divorce
Under New Jersey Legislative Statutes §2A:34-2(e), one spouse’s voluntarily induced drug addiction or habitual drunkenness is cause for divorce. To qualify, the substance abuse problem must last for a period of 12 consecutive months during the marriage.
The mental health of one spouse can also be cause for divorce or annulment under New Jersey law. A spouse’s institutionalization, due to mental illness, is grounds for divorce under N.J.L.S. §9:2-4a §2A:34-2(f) if it lasts for approximately 24 consecutive months. Occasionally, mental health may also be grounds for annulment, meaning that a marriage has never been legitimate, wheras a divorce ends a valid marriage. Under N.J.L.S. §9:2-4a §2A:34:1(d), the court may grant an annulment if a party lacked capacity at the time of the marriage due to a mental condition. Annulments are unusual and sometimes confusing, so you may wish to contact counsel for advice if you believe your marriage could be invalid.
New Jersey allows couples to divorce based on irreconcilable differences, which is the most common reason for divorce, also called no-fault divorce. However, there could be a relevant cause that could impact your case. Speaking to a qualified divorce lawyer in New Jersey can help you determine how to proceed with the dissolution of your marriage.
The Impact of Mental Health on Property Division and Support Payments
Any New Jersey divorce must provide for the division of marital property, alimony, and child support. A spouse’s mental health can influence how a court rules on these issues.
New Jersey courts follow equitable division principles when dividing property in a divorce. Equitable division does not mean that each spouse will receive half of the marital property, instead, the judge divides property based on what they believe is fair. Sometimes the court may award additional assets to a spouse with special medical needs or who is unable to work. The court does this if it believes that the additional property award would be fair and ensure that the struggling spouse has resources available.
The court also makes orders regarding alimony, sometimes known as maintenance or spousal support, as well as child support. As with property divisions, a spouse’s mental health may play a role in support orders. A judge may consider a person’s mental health, ability to find employment, or history of being supported by their spouse when making support orders.
Property and support determination can have a lasting impact on the finances of both spouses, so it’s essential to understand your rights in a divorce. The court may have difficulty assessing the severity of a person’s mental health concerns, and, unfortunately, there’s the potential for unfair treatment of either party. Retaining a knowledgeable New Jersey divorce attorney can help ensure that your financial rights are protected.
The Mental Health of Parents in Child Custody Matters
Child custody disputes are a common issue in family law cases, and the mental health of a parent can be a major concern. Mental illness won’t necessarily prevent a parent from exercising parenting time or sharing legal custody of a child. Many parents with mental illness actively participate in their child’s life and may even be the child’s primary caregiver. However, the well-being and safety of the child is a primary consideration for the court, and each parent’s mental health does play a significant role in the court’s decisions regarding custody.
Under N.J.L.S. §9:2-4a, the best interests of the child must be the highest consideration in custody cases. The judge may consider any information or factor relevant to the child. N.J.L.S. §9:2-4(c) lists some factors that the court should consider, and some are particularly relevant in cases involving a parent with mental illness or addiction:
- The child’s safety from abuse and domestic violence
- Stability of the home environment
- Fitness of each parent
- The quality and quantity of time a parent spent with a child before the separation
The court has many options available when developing a custody plan. It may allow parents to share equal parenting time of the child (called physical custody), but orders just one parent to make all major decisions regarding the child’s care; or the plan might order parents to share legal custody of the child. In extreme circumstances, the court must sometimes limit or prohibit one parent’s contact with a child.
To promote the safety and welfare of a child, the judge can also place specific restrictions on a parent while the child is in their care. For example, a judge might order that a parent with a history of addiction refrain from drinking alcohol during their time with the child. If there are legitimate safety concerns, the court might require that parenting time be supervised or occur in a public place.
How mental health affects child custody depends on the specific facts of each case. A mild or well-managed mental illness doesn’t impact a case the same way a severe mental illness or addiction can limit a parent’s ability to care for a child safely.
Custody disputes can be contentious as parents may disagree about the state of one parent’s mental health. An experienced family law attorney in New Jersey can help guide a parent through these difficult times. Sometimes it may be necessary to present medical records and other complex evidence or hire an expert witness to ensure that the judge is fully informed about the issues in a case. A lawyer can help make sure that your parental rights are protected, and custody orders genuinely serve the best interests of your child.
Villani & DeLuca Can Help You Deal With a Difficult Case
Family law matters often involve complex and sensitive issues, and this is especially true if one party is struggling with their mental health. Understanding how mental illness can impact a case isn’t easy, and judges may not always be familiar with the terms and issues related to mental health. Legal counsel can present relevant information and lead a court to the best outcome.
Both parties in these cases have important rights, and the outcome of a case can impact your finances and the welfare of your children. Although facing such a case can be stressful and emotional, a compassionate and skilled advocate can help protect your rights. The lawyers at Villani & DeLuca understand how mental illness can affect family law in New Jersey and are available to speak with you.