What is it like to divorce an alcoholic? What can a spouse expect when divorcing an alcoholic?
If you asked 10 different spouses who have gone through this experience, you may get 10 different answers. That is because we believe the number one truth about divorcing an alcoholic who continues to abuse alcohol is that it is unpredictable. The level of difficulty when dealing with an alcoholic with an ongoing alcohol abuse problem can vary so greatly from one person to another that the greatest consistency is a lack of consistency.
So then, how does a spouse who is divorcing an alcoholic plan and prepare? That is why we wrote this article. There are steps a spouse can take when divorcing an alcoholic that can make the divorce process smoother. In our experience, much of what we write is common sense but common sense that has been validated through our significant experience as Orange County divorce attorneys.
You probably already know this but we will say it anyway – this is not legal advice about your specific case. These are just some tips that we believe may help a spouse who is divorcing an alcoholic and needs general information on the subject. Nothing we write here is a substitute for advice directly about your case.
Please ensure you have a private consultation with an experienced family law attorney. Finally, we only write about divorcing an alcoholic from California law’s perspective.
At the end of this article, we provide you with our contact information to reach us if your matter is or will be in Orange County, California and you need an experienced family law attorney in Orange County to help you.
First, let’s distinguish between divorcing an alcoholic who no longer abuses alcohol versus one who still does
Merriam-Webster defines alcoholism as “a medical condition in which someone frequently drinks too much alcohol and becomes unable to live a normal and healthy life.” That definition sounds accurate to us. But there is an additional component to it for the purposes of this article. We are not referring to divorcing an alcoholic who is no longer using or abusing alcohol. We are referring to someone who continues to show the same consistent and often compulsive alcohol abuse.
There are many men and women who have suffered from alcoholism in their life but have achieved sobriety and maintained it. Those are courageous men and women who have overcome a terrible disease that can have debilitating consequences on the body and essentially every other aspect of life. Every day, week, month and year continues to be a battle for them to remain sober. Then there are also those who continue to suffer and have not achieved sobriety. Divorcing the latter is our focus in this article.
Divorcing an alcoholic with children
Children make divorcing an alcoholic much more challenging. For the spouse who is divorcing an alcoholic, there is often an emotional tug of war between the desire to have the children see the other parent and the knowledge that the alcohol abusing parent may be a danger to the children. Focusing on the children’s best interest is of course what the court is required to do. But that doesn’t make the process any easier for the parent who many times finds him or herself in a custody battle.
For the parent and spouse who is divorcing an alcoholic, we have found the following to be most helpful:
If your spouse denies the alcohol abuse problem, then proving it becomes a priority.
In California, Family Code section 3011 states alcohol abuse is a consideration when evaluating the children’s best interest. On that subject, section (d) states:
“(d) 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. Before considering these allegations, the court may first require independent corroboration, including, but not limited to, written reports from law enforcement agencies, courts, probation departments, social welfare agencies, medical facilities, rehabilitation facilities, or other public agencies or nonprofit organizations providing drug and alcohol abuse services. As used in this subdivision, “controlled substances” has the same meaning as defined in the California Uniform Controlled Substances Act, Division 10 (commencing with Section 11000) of the Health and Safety Code.”
Independent corroborating evidence takes many forms when divorcing an alcoholic. Alcohol-related criminal offenses are the most compelling evidence. However, past attempts at rehabilitation, medical records, witnesses to the alcohol abuse, admissions of the alcohol abuse, and similar evidence can also corroborate both the past and ongoing alcohol abuse.
It would be easier if the spouse and parent who suffers the ongoing alcohol abuse simply admitted to the problem and sought help. But what is easier does not always occur and the priority must be protecting the children until that other parent is ready to resume a healthy relationship with them that does not include the ongoing alcohol abuse problem.
If the alcohol abuse’s existence is not the issue but the recovery has been short-lived, random alcohol testing can be a valuable resource to protect the children.
This random testing can be customized for the case and there is no one size fits all when it comes to the testing procedure and the result’s agreed upon impact. We have written an article on the subject of California family law alcohol and drug testing and we encourage you to read it for more information.
The worst type of case and the most dangerous one as it relates to the children is that which involves the spouse who refuses to get help and refuses to acknowledge any measures need to be taken even though the alcohol abuse problem is significant.
In such situations, the most effective way to protect the children is for there to be supervised visitation, if the court is going to make any visitation orders. Supervised visitation is an extreme measure but if the alcohol abuse is so serious that the spouse who suffers from it cannot reasonably be trusted to be alone with the children, there are few measures that are more protective of the children and their best interest. Here is a list of professional supervisors and monitors that Orange County Family Court has approved.
This list does get updated from time to time and it may not be updated when you read this.
Divorcing an alcoholic who is also the family’s financial support
Those who suffer from ongoing alcohol abuse may sometimes be quite functional in life’s other aspects. We have seen doctors, lawyers, engineers, presidents of companies and people in all walks of life, whether blue-collar or white-collar, suffer from ongoing alcohol abuse but still maintain and sometimes even excel at their chosen profession. The functional alcoholic privately suffers but publicly shows little to no evidence of it.
The law does not provide any advantages to a supporting spouse just because he or she abuses alcohol. But the reality is that a divorce can cause such a high level of stress to someone who suffers from this disease that this person’s conduct in their personal lives, professional lives and now divorce could become unpredictable.
This unpredictability may be deliberately sabotaging employment or their ability to earn income within the work environment. In a personal environment, it can manifest itself through the alcohol abuse’s escalation as well as how person handles the ongoing stress. We have seen such situations excel toward physical abuse against the other spouse or children.
Because these situations can vary so much from one family to another, there is no one solution nor could any solution be found in any article. What we believe is most important is for the spouse who is divorcing an alcoholic to sit down with the chosen family law attorney, financial professional, therapist and others who are involved and plan ahead.
For example, if the family needs to be protected from physical abuse, moving out may be the best option. If physical abuse has already occurred, seeking a domestic violence restraining order may be wise. If there are significant funds in various accounts that need to be protected or the spouses who is abusing alcohol has threatened to remove the funds, proper measures can be taken in Family Court to protect those accounts and there may be situations where it is even proper to take steps to protect those accounts before a family law case commences. What those steps are that should be taken requires diligent communication with your professionals.
Of course, just because a spouse is divorcing an alcoholic does not mean he or she should sit on the sideline and be pressed into a lack of financial support. When divorcing an alcoholic who is the primary wage earner, both child support and under many circumstances spousal support may be available.
Divorcing an alcoholic who is the lower income earner
When divorcing an alcoholic who is the lower income earner or does not earn any income at all, different challenges arise.
Sometimes, the alcohol abusing spouse is not able to hold down a job or is simply unwilling due to the abuse’s debilitating nature. The alcohol abusing spouse may simply be unable to motivate him or herself to become gainfully employed. What can the employed spouse do? The answer depends in part on how serious the alcohol abuse may be. Let us take two extreme examples.
If the alcohol abuse is so severe that the person is simply unable to function on a day-to-day basis, a rehabilitation program may be the best course of action. In such a situation, the spouse without the alcohol abuse problem will likely get sole custody on at least a temporary basis. That means child support is not likely or is less likely under such a circumstance depending on the parenting time provided to the alcohol abusing parent. Spousal support may still be in play and whether the court orders spousal support on a temporary basis and before the divorce is final depends too much on the case’s specific facts to discuss in detail here.
However, if the rehabilitation program is an inpatient one and the spouse who is the wage earner pays for it, that should be a consideration with any spousal support order. In addition, since the wage earning spouse is the one who will care for the children full-time without the other spouse’s financial support, that may also be a consideration when determining whether spousal support is even proper at that time. There are many other factors taken into consideration here.
The other extreme example is one where the alcohol abusing parent does not suffer in a debilitating capacity but is rather capable of earning income. Still, that spouse refuses to work. In such situations, the wage earning spouse and his or her lawyer should consider whether the spouse’s vocational examination is reasonable and necessary. A vocational examination is authorized by California Family Code section 4331.
An addiction expert’s role when divorcing an alcoholic
In Orange County, California we are fortunate to have addiction expert Saeed Soltani, Ph.D. Dr. Soltani is sometimes retained as the Court’s expert in Orange County divorce cases that involve alcohol abuse. Dr. Soltani may perform a court ordered assessment of a spouse who may suffer from alcohol abuse and give a recommendation to the Family Court as to the family law issues related to addiction, past abuse and potential, ongoing alcohol abuse. In addition, Dr. Soltani can help effectuate court ordered, random alcohol testing.
Some other California counties have experts similar to Dr. Soltani. Such experts can take this often contested, complex subject and help the spouses, the lawyers and the court better deal with it.
Any addiction expert’s opinion is just that. Such experts do not make orders. Similar to child custody evaluators, their opinions and recommendations may be given certain weight in court but ultimately the family law judge decides the amount of that weight and whether the recommendations are followed in whole or in part.
The child custody evaluator’s role when divorcing an alcoholic
We discussed the subject of private child custody evaluations in an article titled “What is the Best Way to Proceed with a Child Custody 730 Evaluation?”
Please read that article for more information. Child custody evaluators can be appointed to give an opinion and recommendation on the children’s best interest in cases that involve substance abuse of any kind, including alcohol. Such opinions and recommendations may be in addition to and in harmony with that of an addiction expert.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article on divorcing an alcoholic. It is an emotional subject for the spouses who live it. It can be a complex subject. Those who have lived with the spouse who long suffers from alcohol abuse know very well the emotional, psychological and sometimes financial toll it can take on a family. To those spouses, we know the ups and down you have been through and we know the courage it takes to finally reach a point that you realize it is best to move forward with your life through a California divorce proceeding.
If your matter is here in Orange County and you wish to have an affordable strategy session with one of our experienced attorneys, please contact us at (714) 937-1193 or (949) 616-3772. We have offices in Central and South Orange County. We will assess your situation objectively and together will form a strategy that makes sense for you and your children.