For Dads: Winning Child Custody When a Mother is Bipolar

Mental illness not only affects the person suffering from it, but it affects those around them as well. The courts generally take any mental disorders extremely seriously when it comes to child custody cases.  

However, most states have laws that iterate how important it is for both parents to be involved in a child’s life. Most state laws also say that parents have a right to raise their children without the government interfering. 

This article addresses how a mother’s mental illness such as bipolar can be a factor when it comes to deciding the custody of your child. As a father committed to winning child custody, it’s important that you understand how bipolar functions within the law, what types of custody it involves, and how you can protect your children’s best interest when handling your custody case. 

What Does Bipolar Disorder in Mothers Look Like?

Bipolar disorder is a type of mood disorder that normally displays two symptoms: depression and mania. In a depressive state, a mom might feel exhausted, insomnia, and sadness. In a manic state, a mom with bipolar disorder might become impulsive, agitated, and grandiose. 

Many moms who suffer from bipolar disorder are able to manage their condition with medication and psychotherapy. These can minimize their extreme episodes. However, some mothers who are bipolar may experience impairments, some that are severe. For example, if a bipolar woman is going through a manic phase, she might become impulsive and not think things through. A mother experiencing a depressive phase may not be able to keep her job, fix meals, or otherwise care for her child.  

Any of the above may make it difficult for a mom to obtain custody of her child during a divorce. But with ongoing medical treatment, bipolar disorder may be managed. Many women who are bipolar are generally very successful when it comes to parenting their child and receiving custody during divorce. The condition may, however, negatively affect certain types of custody more than others. 

Types of Child Custody Impacted by Bipolar

When determining custody agreements, the court considers two types of custody: physical and legal. Depending on the laws of your state, physical custody refers to which parent the child lives with and includes minor day-to-day decision-making for the child. Legal custody gives a parent the right to make any major decisions regarding their child such as what school they will go to, their religion, medical decisions, etc. Courts normally have the authority to order that either physical and/or legal custody be shared or given to the father or mother of your child. 

Mental illness such as bipolar can factor into the court’s decision, depending on your specific circumstances. The goal of the court when determining custody is to work out an arrangement that promotes your child’s best interests and adheres to the laws of your state. If mental illness threatens your child’s wellbeing or standard of care, this could be grounds for modifying a standard custody agreement. 

Legal Custody and Mental Illness

As mentioned above, legal custody refers to which parent will make important decisions for your child. If a mother’s mental illness or bipolar disorder is so extreme that she can’t manage her own personal affairs, and/or she needs a guardian or a form of in-patient hospitalization, this may carry a lot of weight against her when it comes to a legal custody battle. If you are concerned that the mother of your children will make unhealthy or dangerous decisions for your children due to her bipolar disorder, this will be something to consider with your lawyer and the court.

It is possible that the court will make an exception and give the mother of your children legal custody if she can prove her mental illness can be – and is – managed. For example, if she is taking medication for bipolar disorder and regularly goes to therapy sessions.

Physical Custody and Mental Illness

Physical custody is just as important as legal custody, in that it will dictate which parent the children will physically spend time with. Some types of mental illness may cause the court to question the safety, health, and well-being of your child when they are in the care of their mother. For example, if a mother has a documented history of violent behavior that is associated with her bipolar manic state, the court may award the dad sole physical custody since that is in the child’s best interest. 

Even if you do achieve sole physical custody, be aware that the mother of your children may still have contact with them through visitation. The visitation may be supervised or unsupervised, depending on the circumstances of your case and at the judge’s discretion.

How to Prove Bipolar in Court 

In any custody battle where bipolar disorder or another mental illness comes into play, the fact that a mother has bipolar disorder is not usually enough for the court to deny her custody. The mental illness must be shown to have a negative impact or potential negative impact on your children. That burden of proof falls upon you and your team. 

In order to win custody, a father must prove in a divorce trial that the mother of the child has bipolar disorder, and also experiences mood swings that may put the child in emotional and/or physical danger. For example, if the mother of your child has a history of extreme behavior due to manic episodes, or has many suicide attempts, this may be enough for a judge to award you sole custody of your child.

The court may also bring in its own professional and order a custody evaluation.  A custody evaluation is generally done by a licensed psychologist who investigates your family and the mom’s history of being bipolar. They will then give their professional opinion to the court about how likely it is that the mother’s bipolar disorder will affect the child. 

A Mother’s Bipolar Treatment Affects Custody

Mental illness is a factor in determining child custody, but its impact on your child could be offset by other factors such as the relationship you and your wife have with your child, what the preference of the child is, and the closeness of each of you to your child’s school and other activities. Another aspect that could factor into a mother’s case is seeking treatment for her bipolar disorder. 

If the mother of your child is receiving treatment for bipolar disorder and is following the recommendations of her doctor, she could receive custody of her child. The court may also take into consideration the following:

  • How long the mother has been in treatment
  • Whether the mother’s episodes have been minimized or eliminated
  • If the mother has displayed any behavior that could put your child at risk
  • The mother’s mental history, including suicide attempts or violent episodes
  • The mother’s medication history, such as if she has stopped taking medication in the past against the advice of her doctor 

If the mother of your child is not willing to seek treatment and is not following her doctor’s treatment plan, or shows signs of being unstable, the judge could consider all those factors when deciding who should have custody of your child.

Modifications and Proof

If the court in your state gives custody to the mentally-ill mother of your child and you learn that your child is at risk, it may be possible to have the court modify the custody order at your request.

It will be up to you, as the father of your child, to prove that your child may be harmed if the court doesn’t act. For a judge to consider your ex-wife’s bipolar disorder, you will have to provide proof of the diagnosis and follow the process described above.

Final Thoughts

Some courts think of mental illness as a severe handicap to being an effective parent. Another view is that most mental illnesses can be successfully managed with drugs and therapy. But most courts tend to err on the side of caution and normally rule against the parent suffering from a mental illness.

It’s important to remember that child custody laws vary from state to state, and your family law attorney should be able to best advise you on the steps you need to take to win custody of your child if their mother suffers from bipolar disorder.