Alcoholism and Drugs in Divorce

Habitual drunkenness is a fault ground in some jurisdictions, and usually a defendant must be a habitual drunk for a period of one year. This includes situations where the spouse is an alcoholic and/or a drug addict but not violent. Even if he or she is not a danger to his or her spouse, this individual cannot support his or her family, and his or her addictions are leaving the family destitute.

Most states retain addiction as grounds for a fault divorce. This situation falls within the boundaries of habitual drunkenness or drug addiction.

In those states that retain addiction or drunkenness as grounds for divorce, the addiction must be a fixed, long-term habit that occurs regularly or often.

Mere occasional or moderate drinking is usually not sufficient and even binges and lost weekends may not be arguable in supporting a claim of alcoholism. A "functioning" alcoholic -- one who holds on to his job despite regular weekends lost in alcoholic stupor -- may also be difficult. These domestic situations, absent objective evidence, invite he says-she says testimony. The objective evidence that passes muster might include a string of car crashes, drunk driving convictions or hospitalizations for alcoholism. As in so much else in the law, the judge will be the one to determine whether a case falls into the "habitual" or "addicted" category of substance use.

A woman who has been forewarned by her husband that he is an alcoholic cannot claim it as grounds for divorce after the marriage. Traditionally, and even now, in some states, foreknowledge of a prospective spouse’s alcoholism or drug addiction is enough to prevent divorce on the grounds of habitual drunkenness or addiction. These cases are particularly difficult because addictions, particularly alcoholism, are often progressive. The groom-to-be who facetiously admits to his "heavy drinking" could a few years into the marriage become a unemployable alcoholic who drags his wife and children into a vortex of despair. A Sensitive, Passionate Man chronicles a 20-year descent of a brilliant lawyer whose alcoholism destroyed him and his family. At the onset of his marriage, he was a "heavy drinker," and could easily have argued that in a divorce action. (In this case, his wife, who wrote the book, struggled with the inflexibility of New York’s divorce laws to obtain a legal separation that would give her and her children some financial protection.) Many women marry alcoholic men in the mistaken hope that marriage will change them. Loving and marrying an alcoholic and living with him, however, are two different propositions.

Like so much about fault divorce, alcoholism makes for darkly comic situations, such as when two alcoholics attempt to divorce one another on grounds of habitual drunkenness. An alcoholic wife claims her husband is a habitual drunk, even she supplies the alcohol, and liberally partakes in drinking. Under traditional fault grounds, if one spouse participated in or encouraged drunkenness, she would be unable to claim it as grounds for divorce. This is much like the idea of condoning or colluding with his behavior. One cannot encourage behavior while claiming to be offended or injured by it.

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