Mental Health and Grounds for Divorce in California

Here is another story:

My wife and I have been married for 4 years and throughout the marriage, she has exhibited extremely erratic behavior from depression to elation and bipolarity. The ups and downs have been very disturbing and miserable.  After our separation, she was diagnosed and treated as schizophrenia and bipolarity. She didn’t work and threatened to use her mental illness to force me to support her lifestyle indefinitely.  With a marriage as short and as painful as ours, it is possible that I could be stuck supporting her indefinitely because of her newly diagnosed disorder?  She also has 2 children from her prior marriage (not ours together) and is receiving child support from her first husband. I live in CA, and what California statue regarding mental illness and divorce?

California courts decide alimony, also known as “spousal support,” based on whether each spouse has the earning ability to maintain the standard of living they each had during the marriage. Some newly-divorced individuals are mentally ill to the point employment is impossible. These mentally ill, unemployed divorcees often struggle maintaining their marital standard of living. Disability benefits may cover a portion of their expenses, but courts often require their ex-spouses to pay spousal support to supplement benefit payments and make up the difference.

Marriages of 10 years or more are considered marriages of long duration in California. As such the court is not allowed to set a definite termination date for spousal support at the time of the trial. Many people and attorneys misinterpret this rule to mean that California has lifetime spousal support in marriages of long duration. This is not the case, as proven by the citation below:

As recognized by our Supreme Court the public policy of this state has progressed from one which “entitled some women to lifelong alimony as a condition of the marital contract of support to one that entitles either spouse to post-dissolution support for only so long as is necessary to become self-supporting.” In re Marriage of Schmir (2005) 134 CA4 432.

While the court cannot terminate spousal support by a certain date, they can set a date for termination unless the supported spouse applies to extend the support on or before that date. In marriages that are just over 10 years, or the spouse has excellent career prospects, this is often a fruitful strategy to pursue. In marriages of less than 10 years, spousal support is presumed to be no longer in duration than half the length of the marriage.

Mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental disorders can impact all aspects of life and marriage. In many states a spouse can seek a divorce on the grounds of the other spouse’s mental illness.  Mental health can factor into custody and alimony decisions as well.  In California, a spouse seeking a divorce doesn’t have to prove that the other spouse caused the problem to divorce; this is called “no-fault divorce.” However, in specific circumstances, a spouse can seek a divorce based on the other spouse’s mental illness. California court can dissolve a marriage on the grounds that a spouse is permanently unable to make decisions, known as “legal incapacity.” Legal incapacity is a person who is incompetent and doesn’t have the ability to make decisions such as getting married, entering into contracts, making medical or financial decisions. A person who is legally incapable of making decisions has deficits in one or more of the following categories:

  • alertness and attention
  • information processing (such as memory or communication problems)
  • thought processes (like delusions or hallucinations)
  • ability to modulate mood and affect

A spouse seeking a divorce for legal incapacity must prove that the other spouse permanently lacks the capacity to make decisions at the time of the divorce filing. The judge will require the testimony or statement of multiple mental health professionals to determine whether the spouse in question suffers from mental illness to the extent that spouse is legally incapable of making decisions.

The spouse seeking divorce should deliver the petition for divorce on the mentally ill spouse’s guardian or conservator. The guardian or conservator then represents the mentally ill spouse’s interests in court.  A sane spouse doesn’t have any more right to the couple’s property than the insane spouse.

CategoryDivorce, English