Can You Divorce a Spouse Diagnosed With Dementia?

Body Mind on Dementia Map

Submitted by Beth Rush
Founder and Managing Editor
Body+Mind Magazine

Divorce is difficult to navigate under any circumstances – event with a healthy spouse. It’s even more challenging when your spouse has Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia diagnosis.

You can divorce someone with dementia, but it might be a long process depending on where you live and the severity of your partner’s mental capacity. You need to know what you’re getting into so you can prepare yourself and your spouse accordingly.

Divorce and Dementia
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What Are Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?

Around 55 million people had dementia in 2019, which is projected to increase. It’s a degenerative disease often seen in older folks. Dementia can interfere with a person’s daily life, making it difficult for spouses to handle at times.

Some of the earliest signs of dementia are:

  • Having problems with memory, including in the short term.
  • Lack of focus or concentration.
  • Confusion around or inability to complete daily tasks.
  • Difficulty keeping up with a conversation.
  • Personality changes, like sudden aggression.

Dementia isn’t necessarily hereditary, but if a close relative has had it, there is a chance you might develop it as well. Understanding your and your spouse’s medical histories can help you prepare for the future and help you decide whether you’re ready to be a caregiver if the disease spreads too far.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but not all dementia cases are Alzheimer’s. Dementia is irreversible, and it can be a difficult journey for a spouse who can’t quite handle their partner anymore as a caregiver. You have options if things seem too difficult. You can divorce a spouse diagnosed with dementia, but it’s not a decision you should take lightly.

There is currently no cure for dementia. However, there are methods that can prevent the progression of the disease. The new pharmaceutical Leqembi shows promise in slowing the spread of plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, though it was only tested in the earlier stages. Other medications can help treat some of the milder symptoms, but they also have several side effects to look out for.

There’s no way to reverse Alzheimer’s disease, but you can take measures to prevent it if you or your loved one is at risk. Things like staying active, getting enough exercise and eating healthily can help you avoid or slow down degenerative diseases like dementia. Take care of yourself and your body and your mind will be safeguarded, as well.

Why You Might Divorce Someone With Dementia

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are difficult to navigate, and sometimes, the best option is for a marriage to dissolve. Despite what others may think, you need to make the choice that will be best for your life and safest for your spouse as they continue to live with this degenerative disease. Whether you have a prenuptial agreement or not, you should of course get legal guidance. Generally, irreconcilable differences may cause you to divorce someone with dementia for several reasons, including the following:

The Marriage May Have Changed

Instead of partners, you may have become more of a caregiver for your spouse. You made vows to love them in sickness and in health, and that won’t change. However, sometimes, you might have to break your marriage to each other when your situation changes. If the relationship has taken a turn in a direction you can’t reasonably keep up with, you may need to take a step back.

They Can’t Recognize You

One of the most painful experiences is knowing that the person you love most can’t recognize you anymore. In some extreme cases, they might grow alarmed when they see you because they think you’re a stranger in their home. When your safety is at risk or the degenerative disease is past being manageable for you, it might be in your best interest to get a divorce — even if it’s one of the hardest choices you could make.

They’re Being Reckless

If your spouse is being reckless with your assets, you may need to protect yourself however possible — and sometimes, a divorce case may feel like the only option to ensure you still have money. One of the earliest signs of dementia is freely giving away money to strangers, which could be what you’ve experienced with your spouse. Otherwise, they may spend on things they don’t need or otherwise jeopardize your financial security.

You Can’t Live Together

Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia typically affect older people. If you can’t care for your spouse anymore, you might have to trust someone else to be their caregiver. Their special needs might require too much of you, and you may not physically be able to keep up with everything they need. As a result, you may think divorce is the best way to move forward.

Your Partner Has Become Abusive

A partner that doesn’t recognize you may have an issue staying calm around you, especially if you’re trying to help them with sensitive tasks. Sometimes, your spouse might lash out at you, physically or verbally, and it can sting. It does no good for your health to be in a situation like that. Aggression in dementia typically comes from another source, not the disease itself. Still, if you can’t handle an aggressive situation or calm them down, it can be difficult to feel at ease in your home.

Things to Remember When Divorcing an Incapacitated Spouse

Divorce is a very difficult decision and is one of the most challenging things you can go through in life. That is especially true when you still love someone or who they were before their cognitive impairment. This process might leave you feeling conflicted or longing for years past when marriage was a bit easier. As you get older, you need to remember what you can do when caring for your spouse. Keep a few things in mind when considering divorce for any reason.

Your Love Hasn’t Changed

Wedding Bands: Divorce and Dementia
Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash

Most people get married because they truly love one another. If you and your spouse got along well and loved one another more than anything before this disease, your love likely hasn’t and will never change. You might need to get a divorce or separate for your own safety or mental health, but you can still hold love for them. It’s difficult to navigate, so only you can decide what’s right for you.

You Can Still Keep in Touch

If you and your spouse part amicably, you can still keep in touch with them. Their memories of you may fade, but you’ll never forget the good times you had together. Visit them occasionally, especially if they’re transferred to a care facility. They might start to feel lonely, and seeing a familiar face now and again might help.

No One Has to Be at Fault

When people think of divorce, they typically think of messy arguments. If that doesn’t sound like you or your spouse, you should know that nobody has to be at fault for the divorce. Many states support no-fault claims, divorce cases where no one is to blame. You don’t need to provide proof that one person caused the downfall of the marriage. You may not need to point the blame at anyone to have your marriage dissolved.

Know Why You Came to This Decision

Many people will ask you why you plan to divorce your spouse, so you need to understand exactly why you made this decision. Could it be that you no longer feel like an adequate caregiver for your spouse? In that case, have you noticed an uptick in risky behavior when you don’t supervise your spouse as much? Knowing why you made your choice might help you understand what’s best for you before you start a legal proceeding.

You Might Not Get 50/50

In a divorce where one person is incapacitated, you should not expect the estate to be split equally. A larger part might go to your spouse to help with their needs. If they can’t take care of things themselves, it might be held in a trust for them. A financial settlement is always common with divorce, so you may need to provide spousal support in giving them a larger part of the estate.

You Need a Plan

A divorce is a major life change. You need to know what to expect and how to navigate this process, as painful as it might be. Talk with an attorney to see what your options are. They’ll have more information for you based on your state’s requirements and help you with all the legal documents. For example, under Florida law, you can divorce your spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. From there, you must figure out what to do next and how you plan to tell everyone.

Your Emotions Are Real

One of the most important things you must realize is that your feelings are real. Your marriage was full of love, and whatever led you to this choice wasn’t easy. You must recognize your emotions and use your head and heart to make decisions.

During this time, you may start grieving for your marriage and experience all the typical signs of grief, like trouble sleeping or changes in appetite. Try to take care of yourself during this tumultuous time.

How to Start the Divorce Process

The divorce process can be complex, especially if you have multiple family members who want to be involved in taking care of you or your spouse. Knowing how to initiate a divorce can save you headaches in the long run. Here are some things you may need to prepare for when you divorce your spouse:

Talk to Your Spouse

Breaching the topic of divorce with your spouse might be tricky. Make sure to have their guardian there if they have someone other than you who will make legal and health care decisions for them. Communicate openly why you want a divorce — and be honest. If you still love your spouse, you should tell them that. Let them know if you plan to visit them after things are finalized.

Working with a spouse who has dementia is one of the most difficult things you can do. Becoming a caregiver can change you and put a strain on your finances and emotional energy, not to mention keep you from going places together. While it is hard, if divorce is the right option, communicate openly and honestly about why you feel that way.

Talk to Family Involved

Once you speak to your spouse or their guardian about the divorce, you’ll have to break the news to other family members. The divorce might drastically affect them, especially if you still have kids living at home and there are questions about property division. Sit your loved ones down and explain your decision and what led you to this point.

You might be met with some backlash. Some people may not comprehend why you’re divorcing your spouse when they have a mental incapacity or while undergoing medical treatment. Just be honest with them about how you’re feeling and what you’ve experienced over time. You can’t make everyone see it your way, but you can be honest about your plan and next steps.

Get Legal Counsel

Seek legal advice from a family lawyer or another trusted attorney. Your spouse may need someone to stand in for them if they aren’t mentally sound enough to make legal decisions for themselves. Your state laws may dictate how you can divorce your spouse base on that person’s ability — like if a certain number of years have to pass before it becomes an option — so your attorney can advise you on how best to proceed.

Can You Divorce Someone With Dementia?

You can divorce someone with dementia, but you may find the process trickier than you think if you don’t live in a no-fault state. For example, according to Florida law, you can dissolve your marriage based on mental incapacity but only file for divorce around three years after the diagnosis. State law of course is different around the country.

You have the right to divorce a spouse with dementia. It’s a difficult decision, but a probate court won’t judge you for it, so you don’t need to worry about its opinion affecting your marriage. You may love your spouse, but you must put your safety first, as you may not be able to care for them as you used to.

Ultimately, you have to live the life that’s best for you and prioritize your mental and physical health. The people who love you will help you through it every step of the way.

Body Mind on Dementia Map

Beth Rush
Founder and Managing Editor
Body+Mind Magazine

Beth Rush is a Founder and the Managing Editor at Body+Mind and a lover of all things health and wellness.

In her spare time, Beth enjoys cooking healthy recipes and trying out new fitness trends.

Visit Beth on Dementia Map or on her website.

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