The Role of Substance Abuse In Wisconsin Divorces

Categories: divorce


No couple that gets married ever envisions that they will eventually face the prospect of divorce, and most couples work incredibly hard to avoid the possibility that their marriage will end in divorce. In some situations, however, even the best efforts of one spouse are not enough to keep a marriage together.

Issues such as infidelity, changing interests, and money problems can all lead to divorce. But one of the most significant factors that lead spouses to decide that they are simply unable to work things out is the rise of substance abuse issues. When one individual cannot recognize their substance abuse problems, and will not seek help, it can create a situation that makes it virtually impossible for the other spouse to tough it out.

This is particularly true when substance abuse issues lead to other problems, such as domestic violence, child abuse, and a generally unsafe or unstable home environment. A spouse may feel compelled to leave a relationship,  and to file for divorce in order to protect his or her children.

Substance Abuse As Justification For Divorce In Wausau

While substance abuse can often lead to divorce, it does not need to be explicitly identified as a grounds for divorce during the divorce process. This is because Wisconsin is a no-fault divorce state.

In some states, a divorcing couple must identify the reason for their divorce, and fit within specific categories of allowable reasons set forth by the state. In Wisconsin, spouses do not have to identify the specific circumstances that led to the breakdown of their marriage. Instead, they can simply state that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.”

This means as a practical matter, the fact that one spouse has a substance abuse problem does not make a divorce any easier or difficult than a divorce based on any other type of issue (unless, of course, the substance abuse is affecting even the individual’s participation in the divorce process). Indeed, in considering whether to grant the divorce, the question of whether substance abuse exists is ultimately irrelevant.

Substance Abuse and Children

Where substance abuse can have a very significant impact on the divorce process is during the consideration of how to set up child custody and placement. While substance abuse does not inherently make an individual unfit to act as a primary custodian of his or her children, the other parent may claim that it has lead to behaviors that make the parent an unreliable or even dangerous care provider.

When a court considers child custody and placement, it must look at what is in the best interest of the child. When a parent is unreliable, prone to outbursts, or even violent as a result of substance abuse issues, courts will often find it is not in the best interest of the child to be exposed to this behavior. Further, courts may find it sets a poor example for older children. This makes it easier for the spouse without substance abuse issues to seek full custody and primary placement to try to keep children away from a spouse who does have a problem–especially if that problem is unacknowledged or untreated.

Courts do have a vested interest in allowing children and parents to maintain a relationship. This means that where possible, the court will try to allow children to have placement time with both parents, even if a parent has a substance addiction. In some fact situations, the court may decide it is best for the safety of the children to require that the visitation be monitored by a third party.

It is only in the most extreme of circumstances, such as obvious neglect or prolonged absence, that the Court may deny a parent with substance abuse issues any visitation whatsoever. If a court observes, for example, that a child has sustained physical, emotional or psychological harm stemming from placement with a parent who has substance issues, the court may ultimately decide that it is in the child’s best interest not to see that parent.

Substance Abuse As  A Factor In Property Division

Although less commonly recognized, substance abuse can also affect the division of marital property during a divorce. When considering how to divide assets in a divorce, or whether to grant spousal support, one factor that courts can consider is whether marital waste has occurred.

Marital waste is when a spouse wastes assets that are part of the marital estate and worth $500 or more.  This can happen when a spouse makes a large and unnecessary purchase, or when a spouse uses money from the marriage to fuel a drug or alcohol habit. Particularly in the context of hard drugs, it can be easy for an individual to run through significant amounts of money in a relatively short period of time.

If a court finds that marital waste has occurred, this may mean that the spouse who wastes assets is determined to be entitled to obtain less during a divorce, and may be a reason for the courts to deviate from the traditional approach of dividing an estate 50/50.

When it comes to spousal support, the impact of substance abuse is less clear. Some courts have held that an individual is not required to provide excessive or ongoing support to a spouse who is unwilling or unable to hold down a steady job due to a substance abuse problem.

Other courts, however, have held that substance abuse is like other medical issues that an individual may face and that a spouse may be required to support an individual as he or she navigates this type of disease.

Disclaimer: This Article Is Not Legal Advice.

Never rely on an article for legal advice as the law frequently changes, information may not be accurate, there may be exceptions to a rule, and reliance may be detrimental. Always consult one of our experienced attorneys for competent, current, and accurate legal advice.

Wisconsin Courts Helping You Address Substance Abuse

If you are considering initiating a divorce because of ongoing substance abuse issues, or need to make a change in your divorce arrangements because a former spouse has developed a substance problem, the divorce attorneys at Crooks, Low, and Connell, S.C. can discuss your legal options with you.

We frequently help clients strategize on how to appropriately respond to a spouse’s substance abuse without engaging in mud-slinging or making the divorce process more difficult than it already is.  If you have specific questions or need more information, contact us online or at (715) 842-2291.