Substance Abuse in the Context of Family Law



Increasingly as family law practitioners we are faced with couples and families caught in the grip of crippling addictions. It can start simply: A dependence upon pain medication, prescribed in response to an injury, which blooms into an addict engaging in drug-seeking behavior. Or a drink at the end of a hectic day to “take the edge off” turns into drinking all day, every day. Many of these challenges aren’t readily apparent until the problem is out of control. Addicts become masters at hiding their addiction. The house of cards begins to fall when someone loses a job, is involved in an auto accident, or is pulled over for driving under the influence. In many situations, the addiction becomes the elephant in the middle of the room, not talked about until the situation becomes a crisis and patience wears out. Addiction’s effects on a family are devastating and often lead people to our offices.

Because Washington is a no-fault state, some people wonder if it matters that their spouse is an addict when it comes to the divorce settlement. The answer is “yes” but not always for clearly apparent reasons. If you have minor children, the court will want to ensure the addiction issues do not impair your parenting functions. See RCW 26.09.191 ( In my experience, addiction issues almost always impair parenting functions in some capacity. In those cases, the issue becomes how to best protect the children from the dangers posed by the addiction. These safeguards can include restrictions on visitation, substance abuse evaluations, treatment, and drug testing.

Addiction can also lead to questions regarding depletion of the community estate. Substance abuse can be costly, not only related to the amount of money expended upon the person’s substance of choice, but also on property damage due to auto accidents, legal fees for defending a DUI, or erratic spending patterns. These issues need to be evaluated by legal counsel to determine if they rise to the level of marital waste.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there are many resources available. Washington Recovery Help Line:
Alcohol and Drug Helpline:
Seattle Narcotics Anonymous:
Seattle Alcoholics Anonymous:
Seattle Alanon (for families of alcoholics):
Nar-Anon (for families of narcotics addicts):