When Alcoholism Factors Into a Child Custody Dispute

Few considerations in divorce proceedings are more emotionally charged than the health, welfare and safety of the children. Courts let couples settle the terms and conditions of a divorce but will intervene if  one parent disagrees with the other regarding an assessment of drinking and the ability of safely caring  for the children.

Alcoholism is a large problem in the United States. About 14 million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse, and one in four children under the age of 18 is exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence in the family. Some states specify alcohol abuse as a factor in determining custody, and others give the courts more discretionary power to deal with it on an individual basis.

Courts consider alcoholism seriously, not just when awarding custody arrangements but afterwards. For instance, a custodial parent wrestling with alcoholism can lose custody when the noncustodial parent proves that alcoholism makes him or her an unfit parent. Proving this can be a daunting task, but any type of police records that support such a claim are the go to resource by lawyers.

Courts in all jurisdictions consider the “best interest of a child” in a custody battle; however, often it falls to the judge to determine the exact weight that alcohol abuse plays in the decision, and thus the onus is on the judge to make a determination. In exercising discretion under the best interest standard, courts generally consider, first, the safety and welfare of the child in balance with frequent and continuing contact with both parents.

For example, in California’s codified policy reinforces legislation that the “perpetration of child abuse or domestic violence in a household were a child resides is detrimental to the child.” Drunkenness becomes a heavy consideration and makes a strong case for sole custody. However, courts consider that when a former spouse helped raise the children, custody or visitation award must consider joint parenting, and thus assure that children have frequent and continuing contact with both parents. Also keep in mind that supervised visitation is always an option the court may exercise in the custody order.

In such a holding, a court might require independent corroboration, such as written reports from law enforcement agencies, medical rehabilitation facilities or other organizations providing drug and alcohol abuse.

The court can order alcohol testing so long as the court has credible and independent corroboration the accused parent is abusing alcohol or using drugs, and generally lawyers gather this evidence before the hearing and present it to the court through documents and testimony.

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