Bipolar disorder can be managed effectively with ongoing professional treatment. Thus, many women with this condition can parent their children successfully and obtain custody during a divorce. However, mothers with bipolar disorder can experience significant impairments. For example, in the manic phase, a woman with bipolar disorder might act impulsively without thinking through the consequences of her choices. Likewise, a mother experiencing a depressive phase might not be able to hold down a job, prepare meals for her family or care for her children’s basic needs. Any of these effects of bipolar disorder can make it difficult for a woman to obtain custody during a divorce.
Bipolar disorder is a subset of mood disorders that is marked by two types of symptoms — depression and mania. In the depressive phase of bipolar disorder, a mother might experience exhaustion, sadness and insomnia. In the manic phases, a woman with bipolar disorder might exhibit impulsiveness, grandiosity and agitation. Often, a mother with bipolar disorder can manage her condition and minimize clinically significant episodes with medication and psychotherapy.
Best Interests Standard
When making child custody determinations, courts look at what custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child. Some jurisdictions look at a parent’s mental health when deciding what custody situation is in the child’s best interests. Even if the court does not look specifically at a parent’s mental health, a judge will generally look at a mother’s relationship with her child, ability to maintain a stable home environment and capacity to understand her child’s needs— factors that can be affected by untreated bipolar disorder.
If a mother is receiving treatment for her bipolar disorder and is complying with her doctor’s treatment recommendations, she may be able to obtain custody of her children. Likewise, if the mother’s moods are generally stable and she has not displayed any behaviors that would place her children at risk, the court might have no compelling reason to deny the mother custody on the basis of her diagnosis. If she is unwilling to seek treatment for her condition, not complying with her doctor’s orders or shows signs of instability, however, the judge might consider these factors when making a custody ruling.
Modifications and Proof
If the court grants custody to a mother with bipolar disorder and the father later discovers that the children are being placed at risk, it is possible for the court to modify the custody order at the father’s request. It will be up to the father to prove that the children will be harmed if the court does not modify its custody ruling. Likewise, for the judge to consider a wife’s bipolar disorder in a custody case, he will need to see proof of an actual diagnosis of this condition. In other words, if a husband merely states that be believes his wife has bipolar disorder, it is unlikely the judge will consider this argument when making a custody ruling in a divorce.