Divorcing an alcoholic is a brutal, messy situation made even worse with an unpredictable partner, as well as legal complexity. And to start with, being married to an alcoholic can be an isolating, difficult and lonely experience. When you’re married to an alcoholic, things can be pretty tough. But when you decide to divorce them, it can feel downright impossible.
Especially if they continue to drink and abuse alcohol during the divorce proceedings. You may be asking yourself “How do I protect myself and my children during a divorce from an alcoholic spouse?” There are a number of things you can do. And they are incredibly important.
And all of this applies to drug use as well. Drug use can amplify the issues we discuss here.
My experience with alcohol addiction
I speak from a kind of experience, and also therefore from bias. My father was an unrelenting alcoholic who drank himself to death when I was 22. My parents divorced when I was four. His ability to wreak financial and psychological havoc on my family was profound, despite their separation.
My goal with AskFlossie is to help women protect themselves. I applaud people battling substance abuse and pursuing sobriety, and those who no longer abuse alcohol or substances. But the reality for a lot of women is an alcoholic spouse with a chronic illness who never seeks sobriety. The most important thing for women and their minor children is security, both personal and financial.
While my views may seem harsh against people battling substance abuse, I believe their family members need profound support, especially if there are children involved.
What is Alcoholism?
Before we get into how to protect yourself during a divorce process from an alcoholic spouse, it’s important to understand what alcoholism is. Alcoholism is a problem a person has a compulsive relationship with alcohol, drinks too much and develops an alcohol addiction. Today, experts see alcoholism as a spectrum of disorders that range from a mild drinking problem (alcohol use disorder) to a heavy drinker with severe alcohol issues.
And mild or severe, it can be hard on marriages and families. Many people struggling with persistent alcoholism have an untreated mental illness. They may lose their job, have financial problems, and get into legal trouble. They may have burned some bridges, destroying personal relationships and support networks. Alcoholism can also lead to physical abuse and emotional abuse of their spouse or children.
If you are divorcing an alcoholic, it is important to understand that alcohol addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. This means that people who are alcoholics can’t just stop drinking and be cured. They need to seek treatment to overcome their alcoholic addiction. And they need to persist with their treatment.
How Does Alcoholism Affect Divorce?
If you are even thinking of divorcing an alcoholic, you may wonder how alcoholism will affect your divorce. The answer is that it depends. Every divorce is different. And every couple has their own unique situation.
However, there are some general ways alcoholism can make divorce more difficult.
1) Unpredictable behavior from an alcoholic spouse
First, alcoholism comes with unpredictable behavior. This can make it hard to be around or live with a person, much less negotiate a separation agreement, financial arrangement, custody agreement or parenting plan. Moreover, it can be challenging for alcohol abusers to stick to a plan. You will always need a Plan B.
2) Abusing alcohol and communication
Second, alcoholism can make it hard for couples to communicate. When communication is difficult, it can be hard to resolve conflict. And when conflicts are not resolved, it can drag out and complicate every step of the divorce case. AKA a protracted and costly legal battle. Also, it creates extra work for everyone catching them when they are sober.
3) Alcohol addiction and domestic violence
Third, alcoholism is strange bedfellow with domestic violence. WHO estimates that 55% of domestic abusers had been drinking alcohol before the assault. If there is physical abuse, domestic violence or intimidation in your marriage, you may need to take extra steps to protect yourself and your children during the divorce process. You may need to get a restraining order/protective order, seek sole child custody during your separation or take other legal action to keep yourself and your children safe.
How to Protect Yourself During a Divorce from an Alcoholic Spouse
When you seek divorce from someone with any kind of substance abuse disorder, there are some things that you can do to protect yourself.
Legal Protection – Proving Alcoholism
If you are thinking of leaving an alcoholic husband or one who has a substance abuse problem, this is a critical consideration in the divorce process in any family court. Although laws vary by state, there are a few things its generally good to document:
- Dates/times/locations of your spouse abusing alcohol, with people present
- Any texts or emails from your husband admitting to or referring to abusing alcohol
- Incidents of drunk driving, with who was in the car and who saw him before and after
- Any witnesses to continual or habitual abuse – you may need to later get a witness statement from them, or refer a court-appointed evaluator to speak with them
- Emergency room admissions and any medical treatment for drunken accidents. Keep any visit summaries or medical records
- Any documentation of a criminal record
- Trips to rehab or addiction treatment of any kind. Get the receipts.
- Any documentation of mental health disorders
A lot of alcoholics slip under the law enforcement radar, and that can make proving alcoholism challenging. For instance, I became a designated driver at the age of 12. The witnesses to my father’s alcoholism were his immediate family and the waitresses who cut him off. The hiddenness of alcoholic behavior puts even more pressure on you to create a record.
Depending on your state, your ability to prove alcoholism or substance abuse can beneficially impact child support, and spousal support (in either direction), and influence the decisions of a child custody evaluator. Keep records.
If you are divorcing an alcoholic, it’s important to do some financial planning. Substance abuse can impact the financial support obligations, as well as any arrangements you make during your separation. That is true whether the alcoholic spouse provides the family’s financial support or their habitual or continual abuse prevents them from working, and you support them.
How to protect yourself financially when divorcing an alcoholic
Many of the ways to prepare yourself are the same, whether you’re dealing with alcohol abuse or not. Check out our leaving your husband checklist and how to leave your husband with no money for the basic details.
Build an Emergency Fund And “Go Bag”
The most important thing for any woman whether she has an alcoholic husband or is divorcing a saint is to have an emergency fund and go bag. Check out all the details in our emergency fund definition. Divorce can make people unpredictable and they can react in ways that are very out of character. Adding alcohol abuse to the situation can only multiply that effect.
Gather critical documents
Divorces are complex proceedings especially when there are children involved, so a little organization goes a very long way. We have a comprehensive list of financial and legal documents to gather in preparation for departure. If an alcoholic spouse is wreaking havoc on your life, organizing these documents can have an even greater impact.
Freeze Your Credit
Honestly, any woman considering divorce should immediately freeze her credit. You can unfreeze it quickly at any time, but freezing it prevents someone – like your alcoholic husband – from taking out credit in your name without your consent. I have seen this in the wild. How to freeze your credit for free? There are three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – and you’ll need to contact each of them individually to freeze your credit. This can quickly be done online in a few minutes
Set a withdrawal limit on joint accounts
If you have a joint account with your alcoholic spouse, call your bank to see if you can lower the daily withdrawal limit. That way, if your spouse tries to make any unusual or large withdrawals, the bank may contact you for authorization first. Just call the number on the back of your card.
Change passwords for financial accounts
If your spouse has access to your online banking accounts, it’s time to change the passwords. This will give you some protection if they try to take out loans or run up debt in your name.
Remove your alcoholic spouse as an authorized user
An authorized user is someone who has permission to use your credit card account but isn’t legally responsible for the debt. If you have an alcoholic spouse who is an authorized user on your credit cards, it’s time to remove them.. You can usually do this by logging in to your account online and making the change in the settings.
Dasha Kennedy, Financial Activist @TheBrokeBlackGirl recently had a fantastic thread on Instagram about putting emotion behind you and protecting accounts in the wake of divorce.
Build a Post-Divorce Financial Plan
Getting divorced from an alcoholic can be a very complicated and costly process. But if you do some financial planning, it can help you to protect yourself and your property.
When you’re going through a divorce, it’s important to think about your long-term financial security. That means creating a budget and setting up accounts and credit cards in your own name only.
Make a plan for health insurance
You’ll also need to make sure that you and your children have adequate health insurance. If your spouse was the primary breadwinner and carried the insurance, ensure they don’t drop you during the separation phase. Once divorced, you may be eligible for COBRA. This is a federal law that requires employers to let employees’ families continue their health insurance after a qualifying event, such as divorce or leaving the company. You may also be able to get health insurance through your state’s marketplace or Medicaid.
Figure out a safe place to live
Speaking on behalf of your kid, having one safe, stable home during a divorce is critical, even if it isn’t fancy. Visitation with an alcoholic parent can be very chaotic. Coming “home” to a safe place matters a lot. Focus on stability rather than flair.
Child Custody Issues When Divorcing an Alcoholic
If you have children, child custody will be one of the biggest issues in your divorce from an alcoholic spouse. Although every state wants what’s in the child’s best interest the processes and rules can vary from state to state when both children and alcoholics are involved.
Is Proving Alcohol Abuse in Custody Proceedings important?
Proving that your spouse is an alcoholic can be difficult, but as we discussed above, it can have a big impact on custody arrangements. Courts will often consider evidence of alcoholism when making custody decisions.
First, contact a lawyer. You do not want to go into a custody battle in divorce court alone. See more on this below.
Child Custody and Alcoholism
There are a number of ways your partner’s alcoholism can affect the custody of your children in a divorce.
First, if you and your spouse have joint custody, you may be concerned about your children’s safety while they’re with your alcoholic spouse. If you can prove that your spouse is an alcoholic and that their drinking habits are putting your children at risk, the court may award you sole custody.
You may also be able to get a custody order that requires your spouse to get treatment for their alcoholism. This means that your spouse will have to go to counseling or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The court may order random alcohol testing. If they fail or skip a test, an alcoholic spouse could lose custody or have visitation restricted. The same goes for a drug test.
How alcoholism can impact child custody arrangements
If you can prove drug addiction or alcohol addiction, there are several ways the family court may modify your alcoholic spouse’s custody and visitation:
- Your alcoholic partner may be required to abstain from drinking alcohol before and during visitation. This means zero alcohol consumption.
- The court might allow only supervised visits to help enforce these rules like sobriety, and/or limit overnight visits.
- The alcoholic parent may be required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, get counseling as a condition of custody
- The alcoholic parent may be required to live in a separate home from the children
- Visitation may be limited to phone calls. It’s in your child’s best interests (especially if they are young) for you to screen those calls because getting on the phone with a drink or high parent is really awful.
These interventions can limit your alcoholic spouse’s proximity, contact and time with your children. This can have an impact on the kids, as well as on the divorce process. It will be a difficult time, but may be the best option if you are concerned for your child’s safety, it may be worth it
You should talk to your lawyer about what is best for you and your children. Random alcohol testing can also ensure that the rules are followed and that habitual or continual abuse doesn’t impact the children involved.
Alcohol addiction and child custody decisions
Another way that drug abuse and divorce laws can help you is by allowing you to get a restraining order or temporary child custody.
Getting a restraining order can be a complicated process. And it’s important to understand that not all states have laws that allow you to get a restraining order in a divorce.
My experience with visitation and child custody
Normally, I wouldn’t cover a legal topic in this much depth. But one of the most persistent issues for me as the adult child of an alcoholic was visitation trauma. Kids are tuned into a parent’s alcohol abuse. I can guarantee they care less about their family’s financial support or dividing marital assets than they do about feeling safe.
Hiring a divorce attorney
At this point in the article, it might be obvious that when divorcing an alcoholic spouse, a divorce attorney is necessary. This is especially true if you have a lot of property or debt to divide, or if you have children and need to create a custody agreement.
Experienced attorneys can navigate custody battles and property division in a divorce. They can also help you get a restraining order or supervised visitation if necessary. If you’re considering a divorce, it’s important to speak with an attorney to understand your legal options.
If you are trying to divorce with no money, the best place to find a divorce attorney is with a legal aid group in your area. Many practice family law and have experience with messy situations as well as the local family law court. Pro Bono lawyers (free ones) can also offer free legal advice – contact your state bar association.
Tell your divorce lawyer about the situation
You don’t need to tell the whole story of your divorce to everyone but you do need to tell it to your divorce lawyer. Not only are you protected by attorney-client privilege, the more information they have about your situation and the challenges you face the better they will be able to advise and protect you.
You should also tell your lawyer if your spouse has a history of alcohol abuse, even if it’s not currently active. I don’t want to demonize the sober, but alcohol problems can and do recur. Honesty with your lawyer can help to protect you and your children from being in an unsafe situation.
Divorce is not an easy process let alone when alcohol abuse is involved. It’s important to remember a few key things. Remember you are not alone and there is help available. Reach out to friends, family, your family law attorney, therapist or a support group for guidance and emotional support. Also consult a divorce attorney to help protect yourself legally, physically and financially. Lastly, make sure you document everything as this will be crucial evidence if your spouse denies the alcoholism.