In this latest installment of our series of blog posts on Minnesota child custody law, we'll focus on parents' health issues, and the impact they may have on the outcome of a custody matter. As you likely know, in 2015, the “best interests of the child” factors that Minnesota courts consider in custody cases underwent some fairly significant revisions. If you are, or expect to be, involved in a custody dispute in this state, it's important for you to know how those revisions may affect you, for good or ill.
The custody law's prior language about health issues stated that a court is to consider “the mental and physical health of all individuals involved; except that a disability, as defined in section 363A.03, of a proposed custodian or the child shall not be determinative of the custody of the child, unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interest of the child.”
The new language in the revised law, reads: “...any physical, mental, or chemical health issue of a parent that affects the child's safety or developmental needs.” (There is language elsewhere in the revised statute directing that “disability alone, as defined in section 363A.03, of a proposed custodian or the child shall not be determinative of the custody of the child.")
What do the changes mean? And more importantly, how are they likely to affect you?
The overarching theme of the changes to the “best interests” factors is an increased focus on children's needs. It's not surprising, therefore, that the new language of the statute would be concerned with parents' health issues “that affect the child's safety or developmental needs.” In other words, a parent's health issue would count against him or her in a custody dispute only if the health issue had an impact on the child's needs.
A parent with, say, depression, or multiple sclerosis, would not have that ailment held against him or her so long as it did not negatively impact the child. This is good news for good parents who happen to have health issues. Under the former language of the law, the mental and physical health of all individuals involved had to be considered whether or not they affected the child's safety and development.
Another notable change in the statute is the addition of “chemical health” issues. As you might expect, this refers to substance use, placing it squarely in the category of health concerns, rather than suggesting that substance abuse (or a history of it) is a moral failing. Furthermore, because of the emphasis referenced above, the language of the statute provides an incentive for parents to address any substance abuse issues. For instance, if a parent has had problems with alcohol abuse, but recognizes the problem and gets treatment, a child's safety and development is much less likely to be negatively affected. To put it another way, the new language of the statute more clearly allows a court to make a distinction between a parent with an active addiction and a parent who is in recovery, taking active steps to protect his or her child.
You might have noticed that the new language references the health issues of a parent, while the old language addresses the health of all individuals involved, which presumably includes the child. Why, if the focus of the law is now on the child's needs, would the child's health issues be left out of this factor? Because the legislature decided to devote another factor just to children's health issues, as discussed in our blog post on children's medical, mental health and educational needs.
If you have any physical, mental, or chemical health issues and are involved in a custody dispute, it's reasonable to expect that your child's other parent may try to convince the court that your issues do, in fact, affect the safety or development in your child. If the shoe is on the other foot, and your child's other parent has significant health issues, you may believe that they negatively impact his or her ability to parent. Either way, it's critical to have legal guidance that can help you protect your children and your relationship with them.
We invite you to contact us at Mundahl Law with any questions you have about how your health issues, or those of your child's other parent could affect your custody case. We look forward to working with you.