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Mental Health and Family Law: Understanding the Impact on Legal Outcomes and Family Dynamics

August 2, 2023

When deciding how to collaboratively raise children, the question of what serves the children’s best interests frequently arises and sparks debate within legal contexts surrounding divorce and child custody. This contentious topic can be further complicated when questions about the status of a parent’s mental health arise. However, a mental illness diagnosis does not have to result in the loss of one’s parental rights.

How Will Mental Health Issues Affect Divorce Orders?

In Michigan, couples can get divorced without accusing their spouse of being at fault for the dissolution of the marriage. This means that a spouse does not need to reference mental health issues of the other spouse as a reason for divorce. However, judges will evaluate the severity of mental health issues when determining custody arrangements.

How Does Mental Illness Affect the Custody of Minor Children?

In Michigan, one in five adults experience mental illness each year.[1] Even if a parent has a mental illness, there is a presumption that it is in a child’s best interest to have a relationship with both parents.[2] This means that, unless there is clear and convincing evidence that a parent is endangering their child(ren)’s mental, emotional or physical health and wellbeing, it is the court’s priority to keep both parents involved.[3] Family law judges should not deny custody based solely on a history of mental health issues; a parent’s mental health is only one factor evaluated when determining custody.[4] Considering this presumption, a parent will have to do more than allege that the other parent has a mental health condition and provide documentation proving that the alleged diagnoses cannot be accommodated and will affect the ability to parent or that the parent refuses to seek treatment for the condition that affects their ability to parent. The ultimate consideration is what serves the children’s best interests, as the Child Custody Act requires the court to rule in a way that best serves the children.[5]

How Will Mental Illness Affect Support?

Parents have a legal duty to support their children regardless of their mental health status. A mental health diagnosis will not remove the obligation to support the child(ren) financially, physically and mentally. Mental health issues can reduce or increase the child support award granted in a divorce decree depending on the circumstances. A judge can award additional alimony or a more significant award if the mental health issues prohibit the ability to support and provide for oneself.

Can I Lose My Parental Rights Due to Mental Health Issues?

Parents have a fundamental right to raise their children how they see fit.[6] Because of this fundamental right, there is a substantial burden to meet before terminating an individual’s rights.[7] When a parent’s rights are terminated, they are no longer obligated to that child, ending the parent-child relationship. This is unlike losing legal or physical custody, where there may still be an obligation to support the child, and custody can be restored with a proper showing or change of circumstances. Termination is a permanent step. The court cannot de facto terminate parental rights.[8] A de facto termination of parental rights constitutes a violation of due process.[9] It must be proven by clear and convincing evidence that a parent is unfit. The Juvenile and Adoption Code provides for a court hearing upon a petition for termination to determine if the parental rights to a child should be terminated.[10] Most individuals with well-managed mental health issues will find that their mental health has little impact on a divorce.

For more questions about the impact of mental health issues in your case, contact a member of Varnum’s Family Law Practice Team.

[1] Nation Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health in Michigan (2021), MichiganStateFactSheet.pdf.

[2] MCL 722.23 and MCL 722.27a(1).

[3] Luna v Regnier, 326 Mich App 173, 183-184; 930 NW2d 410 (2018).

[4] MCL 722.23.

[5] MCL 722.27a(1).

[6] In re B & J, 279 Mich App 12, 18; 756 NW2d 234 (2008).

[7] Id.

[8] Luna v Regnier, 326 Mich App 173, 183-184; 930 NW2d 410 (2018).

[9] Id.

[10] MCL 712.19b.

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