California Divorce Laws Regarding Mental Illness

By John Stevens J.D.


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California is a no-fault divorce state, meaning there is no requirement to prove a spouse acted improperly with respect to the marital relationship. If one spouse suffers from a severe mental illness, referred to in California law as “incurably insane,” that illness could serve as the basis for a divorce. Whether a mental condition reaches the level of incurably insane depends on the specific facts of each case and is left to the discretion of the judge.

Grounds for Divorce in California

California law provides married couples with only two grounds for seeking divorce. The first, and by far the more common, is irreconcilable differences. Irreconcilable differences means there are marital problems so serious that no reasonable likelihood exists that the parties can work them out. The second ground is based on the incurable insanity of one spouse.

Proving Incurable Insanity

A spouse requesting a divorce in California on the ground of incurable insanity has the burden of proving the insanity exists. At a minimum, the spouse must present expert witness medical testimony to the court. The critical question is not whether the insanity existed at any time during the marriage, but whether the insanity exists at the time the initial divorce papers are filed and likely to exist indefinitely. Because the process of proving incurable insanity is complex, filing for divorce on this ground can substantially delay the divorce process.

Establishing incurable insanity may be beneficial if seeking sole custody of minor children, but it has no effect on property division or spousal support rulings. Although not required, it would be wise to hire an attorney to navigate the process of obtaining a divorce on the ground of incurable insanity due to the complex issues involved.

Summary Dissolution Proceeding

California law provides two types of divorce proceedings: traditional divorce and simple divorce, called a “summary dissolution.” The summary dissolution option is not available to couples with children or those seeking divorce on the ground of incurable insanity. In a traditional divorce proceeding, including one made on the ground of incurable insanity, the court can order spousal support, but parties requesting a summary dissolution give up the right to receive spousal support from each other.

Legal Separation

Legal separation is a common alternative to a divorce for parties who have a religious objection to divorcing or believe they may be able to work out their differences. A court will only grant a legal separation if both spouses consent to the separation, or if one party does not file paperwork objecting to the separation. As with divorce, legal separation is available if there are irreconcilable differences or one spouse suffers from an incurable insanity.