For many people, the issue of mental illness is a part of their lives and an ongoing battle. When a person with mental illness is also a parent, the issues become that much more complicated, especially when it comes to child custody and visitation litigation. A recent ruling by the Court of Special Appeals highlights the important concept that a parent’s improving or declining mental health may constitute the sort of material change of circumstances required to modify an existing order of custody and visitation.
The couple in that recent case, Dale Wettlaufer and Allison Brill Wettlaufer, married in 2005 and had a daughter in 2009. In December 2011, the husband experienced a bout of severe depression, including thoughts of suicide. This episode led him to check himself into a psychiatric hospital in Towson. The wife and he separated that same month. By the summer of 2012, the husband had achieved a measure of stability, with a new job and a new home in Wisconsin.
In the following March, a trial court issued the couple’s divorce, giving the mother sole legal and physical custody. The order also limited the father only to visitation in Maryland, which was required to be supervised. In 2015, the father filed a motion with the court, seeking to challenge the restrictive nature of his visitation with the daughter. In order to obtain a modification of your visitation order in Maryland, you have to show two things: (1) that a material change in circumstances has occurred between the time that the court entered the original visitation order and the time that you requested a modification, and (2) that the change you requested would be in the best interest of the child.
The father contended that, while the restrictive nature of the visits might have been appropriate initially in light of his unstable situation, he was now able to take on more responsibility with the child, and the continued presence of supervisors during his visits was impairing his relationship with the daughter. The mother argued, on the other hand, that the father had achieved a degree of stability prior to the entry of the divorce judgment, so his current state of stability could not constitute the required “material change in circumstances.”
The trial court dismissed the father’s request. No material change in circumstances had occurred, and the father was merely someone who was “not satisfied with the deal that he struck,” the trial court concluded.
The father appealed and was successful in reviving his case for modification of visitation. The appeals court ruled that it was a clear legal error for the trial court to state that the father’s evidence did not establish a material change in circumstances. In 2012, the Court of Special Appeals had previously addressed the issue of mental health and its role in establishing a material change in circumstances. In that previous case, the court decided that, even though a mother had dealt with mental health issues throughout her marriage, the worsening of her mental health could constitute the sort of change in circumstances needed to modify visitation. By the same token, just as a decline in mental health could be a sufficient change, an improvement in a parent’s mental health could also satisfy the legal requirement for considering a modification of visitation.
The appeals court rejected the mother’s argument that, since the husband had become settled at his new home and new job before the entry of the order, his current stability was not a change. The appeals court pointed out that, at the time the order was entered, the husband had been stable for only about eight months. By the time of his motion, that stability had spanned three years. With the benefit of this longer period of time, the father “can more confidently allege and support with evidence that his past [unstable] episode was isolated, rather than chronic.”
Visitation issues, especially when one parent has mental health issues, require considerable skill and sensitivity. If you are involved in this type, or any type, of custody and visitation dispute, contact Anthony A. Fatemi, an experienced Maryland child custody attorney who has many years of experience helping clients deal with family law issues. For representation on which you can rely, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Maryland’s Highest Court Recognizes ‘De Facto Parent’ Status, Allows Woman’s Ex-Wife to Seek Visitation, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 29, 2016
Maryland Court Affirms Decision Denying Parent Visitation in Child Custody Dispute, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 30, 2014