Category : Family Law

How Will Alcoholism Affect My Custody Case?

Child custody cases are contentious affairs almost by default; it’s simply the nature of the beast. However, an already difficult custody case can quickly become a train wreck when the specter of alcohol abuse rears its head.

The pressure of the case alone can feed alcoholism: stress leads to alcohol abuse, which complicates the case, which leads to more stress and more battles with alcohol in a vicious cycle that can quickly spiral out of control. But knowledge is power: there are discernible trends in the impact of alcoholism on child custody cases. Simply understanding these trends can make your custody case a much less frightening ordeal.

1) Failure to recognize the problem is a big problem: Judges tend to be particularly concerned with alcoholic behavior that remains unacknowledged by the parent. The rationale is simple: admitting the problem is the first step toward recovery, and an alcoholic parent who won’t acknowledge their condition can’t be reasonably expected to begin making progress toward the recovery that’s so crucial for their chid’s well-being.

2) Recent substance abuse can be a deal-breaker: For obvious reasons, judges are hesitant to award custody to a parent who may be in the middle of a downward spiral of addictive behaviors. In many divorce proceedings, the addictions of one parent were a key factor in the separation; if that behavior is still fresh in the rear-view mirror, it’s reasonable to assume that a judge will exercise an abundance of caution before placing a child in a potentially dangerous situation. Custody is especially difficult to acquire in cases where alcohol was a contributing factor to events like domestic violence, impaired driving, or child endangerment.

3) Newly-sober parents may have to prove themselves: It’s admirable, honorable, and prudent to seek sobriety; in the long run, you’re going to be a much better parent when you’re living a sober lifestyle. But be patient; in the short term, judges are likely to balk at awarding full custodial rights to a parent in the early stages of their sobriety, simply because the normal stresses of parenting can be a contributing factor toward relapse. Don’t get discouraged if your efforts toward sobriety fail to immediately sway the court; it’s common for judges to look for an extended sobriety before entertaining a change in custodial rights.

4) Alcoholism doesn’t mean all is lost: In fact, parents whose alcohol abuse is in the rear-view mirror aren’t likely to see it negatively impact their custodial rights; even if a spouse proves that past behavior occurred, a long-term period of sobriety will typically outweigh any periodic bouts of alcohol abuse, especially if they occurred before the birth of the children or if there’s no proof that the children were ever negatively impacted by their parent’s drinking.

In short, unless your drinking can be proven to present an immediate danger to the health or well-being of the children, it’s unlikely to impact the custody decision.

Long-term Recovery and Family Law: Making Your Case

Addiction is a disease. Our society is coming to grips with this truth more and more each day. However, emerging cultural developments often take time to work their way into our judicial system; courts are, by design, built to resist rapid change — including family courts, where custody decisions involving the children of addicts are routine.

Add to this the fact that understanding of addiction is still imperfect; while no one blames cancer patients or paraplegics for their condition, many people still blame addicts for their addiction. A significant portion of our society seems unable to grasp (or accept) that addiction is fundamentally a brain disease.

This flawed understanding of addiction often leads to family court decisions that are fundamentally discriminatory, failing to view addiction as the disease that it is. All too often, this affects parents in recovery, who often encounter judges and attorneys who assume that their addictive behaviors were intentional, rational choices, rather than the symptoms of a brain coping with an all-too-common disease.

This discriminatory prejudice affects both parents and their children when a family law case involves one or more parents in long-term recovery. What can a parent in recovery do when their past addictions seem likely to unfairly skew the court’s objectivity toward them?

Three Tips for Making Your Case

First, it’s important to discuss the science of addiction. We know now that addiction has both genetic and environmental components, and the search for the “addiction gene” continues to narrow its focus day by day. These developments have led to new treatment pathways for addictions and relapse prevention programs for those in recovery.

Second, you may want to use some expert publications (such as the US Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health) to combat prevalent misperceptions about addiction and recovery.

Third, it may be easier to make your case with the assistance of a licensed physician. The American Board of Addiction Medicine can provide a list of doctors who focus primarily on addiction and recovery; these doctors can speak credibly to the existence of long-term recovery, and the likelihood of its continuation.

A Family Law Mediator Can Help

If you’re in recovery, it’s crucial that you seek out a family law mediator with experience in cases involving parents in recovery. A mediator can help all parties agree to parenting plans that account for the nuances of cases involving recovering addicts; they can also assist in successfully negotiating for modifications to custody orders currently in place, as circumstances change.

Family law mediators are also qualified to negotiate legal separation agreements for couples wishing to separate, or post-nuptial agreements when couples want to stay together but one party has concerns regarding the other’s addiction and/or recovery. Since experienced family law mediators have seen hundreds of cases involving addiction and recovery, they’re also qualified to help struggling parents work toward non-binding reconciliation.

Documenting Recovery

Experts recommend that parents in recovery take steps to document their progress for the court. Your documentation might include some or all of the following:

1) Risk Factors: Although each case of addiction is as unique as the individual suffering, there are some common threads that unite many: genetics, environment, early use / abuse, childhood trauma, and mental illness. It may be helpful to demonstrate to the court that you’ve considered each of these factors and developed a plan to address each component effectively.

2) Medication: If you’re using anti-craving medications, such as suboxone or naltrexone, to manage your cravings and prevent relapse, it’s important to demonstrate to the court that you’re monitoring your usage and following the assigned protocol.

3) Aftercare Plan: Many recoveries come off the wheels at this stage; after detox and rehab are completed, it’s crucial to have a long-term aftercare arrangement. This may be a 12-step program or personal accountability coach; for others, it may be an online community, cell phone app, or therapist. Although the ideal aftercare plan differs for every recovering addict, it’s always important to document the steps you’re taking to maintain sobriety and prevent relapse.

4) Emergency Plan: Relapse is often a painful reality; although all recovering addicts don’t relapse, the potential never entirely vanishes. Because of this reality, it’s wise to document a plan for “What if?” This can demonstrate to the court that you’re not naive about your situation and you’re thinking clearly enough to make plans to account for the worst-case scenario.

Family law is never simple, and elements of addiction and recovery can complicate an already-tense situation. The key is knowledge: rather than dealing emotionally with the situation, try to stay in the world the court is most comfortable with: facts, checklists, and documentation.

Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Custody Disputes

Child custody decisions are among the most notoriously difficult rulings any judge will ever make. When the safety and well-being of a child are at stake, our legal system should take great pains to ensure the best possible outcome is obtained for the child.

Obviously, when the stakes are this high, either parent’s potential drug and alcohol use can be a key factor. Addicted or intoxicated parents simply can’t be expected to place the child’s physical safety and emotional well-being at the center of their decision-making processes; for example, consider this 2011 case, in which a father drank heavily and then allowed his 9-year-old to drive him around during his custodial weekend with her.

As judges consider the best way to distribute custodial time between parents, then, it’s reasonable for them to weight the potential impact that either parent’s drug or alcohol habits will have on the child. If you believe your spouse’s habits or addictions impede their ability to reasonably care for your child, it’s crucial that you find a way to get factual evidence of those habits into the court record.

Because you are obviously an interested party to the case, your word alone won’t be considered sufficient evidence to impact the ruling in most cases. You’ll need actual evidence of substance abuse: a witness, a social media post, a text message—something that indicates your spouse has an issue with alcohol or drugs. You won’t need to prove it definitively—just provide enough evidence for a court to order a custody evaluation. After that, it will typically be the job of a forensic psychologist to evaluate your claims and any evidence that your spouse’s use of drugs or alcohol has placed your child in danger.

Parents who battle addiction may be refused visitation rights at all; more often, they are limited to visitation in the presence of a court monitor or other supervisor. However, courts tend to look favorably on parents in rehab; often, a parent’s love for their child is a large enough incentive to motivate them to change their lifestyle.

Because of this, it’s fairly typical for parents in rehab to be granted supervised visitation, or for parents who’ve had visitation suspended to see their rights reinstated once they enter rehab. On the other hand, the court may terminate all parental rights for a parent with a history of addiction or substance abuse who completely refuses to get treatment.


Laws in your state may vary; it’s always wise to seek the advice of your attorney in determining the best course of action. You need to know things like:

* What will the court accept as proof of neglect or endangerment?

* If I suspect my child is in harm’s way, how do I get immediate emergency custody?

* If I suspect my child will be in harm’s way later, how do I terminate or modify a visitation or custody arrangement?

* If my spouse is petitioning to regain custody or visitation, what will it take for them to succeed?

* What behaviors could result in termination of parental rights?

* Can the court make my spouse submit to drug or alcohol testing prior to each visit? What is necessary to make that happen?

In general, most experts agree that children should be kept out of acrimonious custody disputes if at all possible; however, the physical and emotional dangers that go along with a substance abuse issue mean that it may well be worth the fight.