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Separating or divorcing when your partner has addictions

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Unfortunately, many people across the country suffer from addictions and it is not without good reason that it is referred to as a family disease. The fallout from this very often affects the people around them which ruins their relationships, which eventually ends in separation and divorce. Whether your partner is addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or anything else, we look at relationship breakdown when your partner has addictions.

The link between addiction and divorce

It is much more difficult to maintain a healthy relationship when addiction is part of the dynamic. Reasons for this can include:

  • People with addictions often prioritise their substance abuse/behaviour over their spouse and children
  • Partners of people with addiction problems may have to take on more responsibility, which often leads to resentment in the relationship
  • Addiction can cause a range of physical and mental health conditions, which can put a strain on a marriage or civil partnership
  • Financial issues, which are a common cause of divorce, are strongly associated with addictions
  • Many people with addiction issues demonstrate secretive behaviours, which can lead to trust issues between a couple
  • Personality changes often occur in people with severe addiction problems
  • Mood swings create tension in the home
  • Financial, legal, and emotional problems
  • Aggressive behaviour that puts you and your children at potential risk

Divorcing someone with addictions

Family courts will treat addiction akin to an illness and will not apportion blame. However, this type of divorce can be problematic for many reasons. It is not uncommon for an addiction, whatever form it takes, to increase in frequency when faced with the imminent prospect of separation or divorce.

The gold standard of the divorce process is to settle matter without having to apply to the court to decide on your behalf. However, in cases of addiction, there are many circumstances where this may not be possible.

Although the effects of gambling within a marriage are different to someone with substance abuse issues, its impact can be just as devastating. There is the additional concern of monetary loss that can cause financial hardship for both parties, particularly if they share bank accounts, credit cards, or a mortgage.

All aspects of addiction can be used as proof that your marriage has irretrievably broken down, which is the only reason you need to end a marriage. It is no longer necessary to “list” reasons for the divorce, and a spouse has no power to contest it. This allows it to proceed without friction or additional costs.

Can addictions affect a divorce settlement?

In general terms, behaviour will not be considered by the court when calculating how the matrimonial pot should be divided. That said, financial misconduct is more likely to be taken into account than personal misconduct. So excessive gambling, or spending huge sums on alcohol or drugs could become relevant. In addition, very often, the non-addicted party cannot expect any financial support from the other parent who may not function well and has an inconsistent work record. This may increase animosity within the relationship if there are struggles with the cost of living.

These things can be considered by section 25(2)(g) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 which states that the court should have regard to “the conduct of each of the parties if that conduct is such that it would be in the opinion of the court be inequitable to disregard it”.

In practice, the court is likely to be reluctant to penalise the addicted party, because addictions are viewed as an illness rather than a choice. To highlight this point, in a 2015 case, the husband spent around £6,000 per week on alcohol and drugs. However, the court did not adjust the final settlement to take account of an estimated £250,000 spend on addictive habits, or a further £230,000 trying to rectify it in rehab. Of course, this is an unusual case, and one of high-net value, but illustrates the extent of courts’ reluctance to punish an addicted party.

Dealing with the children if your partner has addictions

Negotiating child arrangements following a separation is often fraught with difficulties, particularly where one party has addictions. It is essential that a parent feels their children will be safe when spending time with the other parent. So if you think your partner is abusing illegal substances, it may be appropriate to ask them to voluntarily engage in a drugs test before contact takes place.

Courts may look at drug and alcohol misuse as reducing the capacity of a parent to take care of their child in a risk-free environment. This places an increased burden on the parent without addiction issues, who may have to assume greater responsibility for caring for their children with no practical support from their ex.

The court may also order a drugs test during the course of the proceedings. Should a parent refuse to be tested, and there is sufficient evidence they have been using drugs, the court can draw negative assumptions from such a refusal, which would impact the child arrangement’s ordered.

If my ex tests positive for drugs, will it prevent contact between them and the children?

While a positive drugs test is likely to be a crucial factor, the court will want to consider this as part of the overall case when thinking about what child arrangements should be put in place. If your ex has a positive test, it does not automatically mean the court will order direct contact to be stopped. However, there is no denying that illegal drug use is taken extremely seriously as a welfare concern.

What steps can be taken to ensure that direct contact is safe when one parent has addictions?

In order to make sure your child is safe during contact; it may be appropriate to consider the following steps:

  • Whether contact between your ex and the children should be supervised. This could be as part of a structured supervision at a dedicated contact centre or by a trusted third party, such as a family friend.
  • Whether contact should be reduced or limited to a shorter period of time
  • Whether any conditions should be placed on the contact
  • Whether a period of ongoing drug testing will be appropriate

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