Can Mental and Physical Health be an Issue in Child Custody Decisions?
Passaic County Family Law Attorneys serving parents through child custody issues in towns like as Wayne, Paterson, Clifton, Woodland Park and across Northern NJ
In cases where a spouse suffers from a disease or mental illness, it is natural to question if the family law courts may use that information to negatively impact on an individual’s child custody case. It is important to remember that New Jersey courts will always hold a child’s best interest (New Jersey code N.J.S.A. 9:2-4) as the standard for deciding child custody cases. The truth is that in some cases, a parent’s mental or physical health can become relevant when determining child custody.
If one parent suffers from severe mental or physical health issues that the court feels can a negative impact on a child’s well-being, the court will carefully consider that information. In order for the condition to be used as a factor in any decision, documents such as medical records as well as testimony from doctors or psychologists prove that a dangerous condition exists must be presented to the court.
The use of mental health records in proving or disproving mental illness
It is possible for a family law attorney to use a psychologist to prove or disprove that a parent’s mental health condition can have an adverse effect on a child’s well-being. It is necessary for the psychologist to access the person’s medical records to confirm or refute claims of mental illness.
However, medical records are usually kept very private, as a result requesting a person’s medical records is not simple. In truth, an attorney will most likely have several complex legal issues to overcome before they can access a person’s private health record. Due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a health care provider is not allowed to disclose private medical (including mental health) information to a third party without prior written consent from the patient.
Though this strong privacy protection exists, it is important to know that a parent cannot use this law to avoid submitting their medical records if they are requested by the courts.
Though many mental illnesses have been stigmatized, there is no specific list of mental health or medical conditions that will automatically limit a person’s custodial rights or visitation with their child. The courts decide each situation on a case by case bases. However, factors the court will take into account are if:
- The mental illness makes a parent unsuitable to care for or raise the child
- The mental illness poses a risk to the child or the parent – such as suicidal, uncontrolled Schizophrenia, etc.
- The health condition that makes the parent unable to care for the child.
Once again it is important to note that because one parent suffers from a medical or mental health condition this does not mean they are automatically unable to obtain custody of their children.
Physical illness or incapacitation as a factor in child custody decisions
On its surface it may seem inherently unfair for the courts to use a parent’s physical illness as a factor in deciding child custody arrangements; however, it can be used. For example, if one parent is diagnosed with cancer or another potentially debilitating disease, that issue can be taken into account by the court. The most important question that the court will confront in addressing the issue is whether or not the diagnosed parent can still appropriately care for the child’s health, safety, and welfare. In other words, the best interests of the child still the standard that the court will use in reaching its decision.
In the newly published trial court decision, A.W. v. T.D., from Judge Jones in the Ocean County Family Court, the court addressed the case of a mother, age 46, who had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, for which she was hospitalized and later discharged. The court allowed the parties to share joint legal custody of the three children with the mom serving as the primary residential custodian and caretaker. Though the parties lived more than three hours away from each other, the mom had a substantial support network of relatives residing within minutes of her home.
As with mental illness, physical illness as a factor in child custody decisions is decided on a case by case basis by the courts, taking into account the details of each unique situation. For this reason, if you or someone you know is entering any child custody proceedings it is critical to have a skilled and experienced attorney as an advocate.
Contact Our Woodland Park Child Custody Attorneys Today
At Del Sardo & Montanari, our team of attorneys is experienced in supporting and fiercely representing our clients who are facing child custody proceedings in Wayne, Paterson, Clifton, Woodland Park and across Northern NJ. No matter your situation you don’t have to confront it alone.
To connect with our firm today in a confidential and comprehensive assessment of your case, please call us at (973) 233-4396 or contact us through our online form for more information about child-custody related issues.