Sadness and grief are normal human emotions experienced by pretty much everyone - particularly if you’re going through a divorce. Major depressive disorder, however, is a distinct mood disorder involving long-lasting symptoms like extreme sadness, low energy, appetite loss (or weight gain) and lack of interest in life’s pleasures. An estimated 16 million people in the U.S. suffer from depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
As our Middlesex County divorce attorneys can explain, any functionally impairing medical condition can impact divorce proceedings. Depression is no exception.
When depression is left untreated, it can lead to serious complications, including a significantly heightened risk of suicide. Refusal to accept treatment for depression can play a pivotal role in a couple’s decision to get a divorce in the first place. But whether it’s going to be a factor in things like parenting time, child support or division of assets will depend on how much the condition has impacted one’s ability to work and provide a safe, stable environment for their kids.
A diagnosis of depression - or any mental health disorder - in and of itself is unlikely to persuade a New Jersey family law Judge much one way or the other on most issues. However, a person whose persistent, untreated depression has left them unable to meet basic parenting obligations will most likely see that reflected in the decisions on issues like child custody, child support and parenting time arrangements. Judges are tasked with deciding these matters on a case-by-case basis. A psychiatrist, medical doctor, or other mental health specialist may be called to conduct evaluations of both parents and the kids and report their findings back to the Court.
The Best Interests of the Child Always Come First
Medical researchers at Yale University pointed out a number of indicators of depression specifically related to parenting. These include:
- Lack of responsiveness to a child. Parents who are depressed are less likely to appropriately respond to cues like crying, gesturing or eye contact.
- Inappropriate parenting behaviors. Some parents who are depressed may be disengaged or neglectful. Others may be hyper-intrusive. What they have in common is that neither is sensitive to the child’s needs or cues.
- Tardiness or truancy. Kids who routinely arrive late to school or miss it altogether may have parents whose depression deprives them of the organizational skills, energy, or motivation to get out the door on time.
When it comes to matters of parenting time, child custody or child support, the guiding principle will always be: “Is this in the best interests of the child.” In New Jersey, Courts make this determination by weighing all the factors outlined in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.
Among those factors are things like the fitness of both parents, the extent and quality of time each parent spent with each child before and after the separation, the stability of the home environment, the immediate physical safety of the child and “any other factor the Court deems relevant.” Untreated depression can impact those expressly-stated factors, and could possibly be considered a relevant factor on its own if it adversely affects the child’s well-being.
Division of Assets and Alimony
As with issues pertaining to the children, it’s possible that untreated depression may impact decisions on alimony and division of assets.
Let’s start with alimony, spousal support that is based on 14 different factors, as outlined in N.J.S.A. 2A:24-23(b). Among those are “the actual need and ability of parties to pay,” “the age, physical and emotional health of the parties,” the “earning capacities and employability of the parties,” and the “length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance.” Because depression can impair basic function - including one’s ability to hold a job for any length of time - it can play a role in alimony determination. However, the Court is likely to limit the timeline on such an award, and may require active participation in a treatment plan.
As for division of property, the Court may look at how one spouse financially supported the other during bouts of depression and the extent to which marital funds were impacted by one’s depression.
For individuals who are depressed or prone to depression, divorce can seem an utterly insurmountable challenge. It is critical that you be prepared and work closely with an experienced legal advocate. Our Middlesex County divorce lawyers will ensure your rights and best interests throughout the divorce process are protected.
Contact our Middlesex County Divorce Attorneys today at (732) 810-0034 to schedule an appointment.