Child Custody & Alcohol

By Contributor

Updated July 21, 2017

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In most states, family courts have one priority in mind: to protect the welfare of children involved in custody cases. Most jurisdictions conduct investigations into the backgrounds and lifestyles of persons seeking custody of a child. Many states have also passed laws mandating drug and alcohol tests to determine if the petitioner for custody has a problem with substance addictions and abuse. Alcoholism can affect child custody petitions.

Best Interests Provisions

Although courts usually don’t want to unnecessarily separate parents from their children, courts are increasingly concerned that some parents may be incapable of caring for a child adequately because of a addiction problem. Courts, where permitted by law, will intervene to protect the ultimate safety and welfare of the child.

Alcohol’s Impact

The negative behaviors of persons suffering from alcoholism vary widely from person to person. Still, courts and society as a whole recognize a general impairment of judgment on the part of the alcoholic when they are drinking heavily. According to the Hart Center, alcoholics tend to struggle in their ability to hold down a job and keep their home life organized—all of which the courts can interpret as a threat to a child’s welfare.


In a study conducted by the Judicial Council of California, half of the judges interviewed said that alcoholism was introduced as a factor in child custody cases “often” or in more than 50 percent of their cases during the 2006 calendar year.

Impairment Standards

Some states, including California, that require drug and alcohol testing in custody cases, use a variety of measurements to determine how alcohol use may affect parenting. Courts will use blood tests, alcohol-related arrests and convictions, such as repeated DUIs, repeated arrests for public drunkenness or fights and psychiatric evaluations looking for evidence that the parent is impaired.

Contradictory Evidence

While courts gauge the amount of impairment due to alcoholism, they consider other things as well. The Judicial Council of California study reports that seeking medical treatment, membership in programs, such as AA and Celebrate Recovery, or enrollment in a rehabilitation center would reassure the court that the victim is trying to overcome a medical problem. These efforts can induce the court to be more lenient.

Witness Testimonies

In contentious custody battles, however, some courts allow non-expert witness testimony--such as from family, friends and co-workers--to be given under oath regarding a petitioner’s alcoholism. While it takes more than one person--especially a spouse involved in the custody fight--to testify a petitioner is impaired, this kind of witness testimony can be very damaging. Friendly witnesses can also help assure the court that a recognized drinking problem is "under control" due to therapeutic efforts.