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When the Fairy Tale Ends: Divorce with a Chronic Illness

Sex and Relationships

January 31, 2024

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Photography by Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Photography by Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

by Kathy Reagan Young

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Fact Checked by:

Jennifer Chesak, MSJ

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by Kathy Reagan Young

•••••

Fact Checked by:

Jennifer Chesak, MSJ

•••••

•••••

If you’re facing the end of a marriage, it can affect everything from finances to emotional support. If you have a chronic illness, it gets even more complicated. Here’s what to consider.

The dissolution of a marriage is sad and scary in the best of situations.

If you have a chronic illness and are facing divorce, you probably have a whole bunch of concerns that healthy individuals don’t have to consider.

But you’re also not alone. Divorce rates in the United States are notoriously high. What’s more, a sobering 6 in 10 adults in the U.S. live with a chronic disease, and 4 in 10 have more than one chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As you proceed with your divorce, keep in mind at all times that you have value. Do not let your condition become you. You have rights as a partner in the marriage. Do not let anyone trample on them. Know your worth and value as a person and stand in it. Your chronic condition doesn’t diminish that one iota.

However, as you go forward, be sure to consider the following financial, legal, social, and other specific concerns that arise during a divorce when one person lives with a chronic illness.

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Your medical condition and its prognosis

Knowing your prognosis and its expected timeline may help you as you begin to make many decisions specific to your situation.

Have a frank discussion with your healthcare professional to discuss the prognosis of your condition — both as it pertains to the general disease and to your situation in particular. Understanding how your needs may change in the future will allow you to negotiate better now.

For example, if you’re likely to be unable to work soon, you’ll need to address your living expenses and other support needs immediately, as well as potential child care costs, and include those costs in your settlement.

Understanding how your needs may change in the future will allow you to negotiate better now.

In the case of an amicable divorce, an ex-spouse may continue playing a supportive role, especially if minor children are involved.

Other family members may be able to provide assistance, but you may need to consider adding professional services. If you don’t have the funds to pay for them yourself, you may be eligible for Medicaid waiver programs, which enable people who might not otherwise qualify to receive Medicaid-funded care.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with any programs that you’re currently using or may be eligible for in the future. Check with your local social services department for programs available to you.

A fantastic resource to learn about state and federal social services is USA.gov. Here you’ll find information on government benefits, disability services, health insurance, housing, and education.

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Custody concerns

Child custody is a major consideration for many people going through a divorce. Know this: Having a disability doesn’t mean you lose your parental rights, even if you need help and require support services.

Before determining whether you want to pursue joint or sole custody, you’ll likely want to consider such factors as:

  • the amount of time and energy each parent can realistically devote to parenting and/or visitation
  • whether you or your spouse intends to relocate and how that might affect your child
  • your child’s preference
  • how well you and your spouse communicate and cooperate
  • how well each of you might respond to modifications to the custody plan if circumstances change.

Think through how you would want to handle these potential issues, and you’ll be more prepared going into the divorce.

Alimony or maintenance

According to the National MS Society, “If you are receiving disability benefits because of your diagnosis, those benefits may affect alimony or maintenance. Some states will take into account any disability benefits you’re receiving when determining your ability to pay alimony or maintenance.

Some states also consider the physical condition of the spouse seeking alimony or maintenance.

Because the award of alimony or maintenance is typically within the discretion of the court, and many factors are considered, it is hard to know how and to what extent your diagnosis will factor into the ultimate decision.”

Know this: Having a disability doesn’t mean you lose your parental rights, even if you need help and require support services.

Each state and U.S. territory has one or more congressionally mandated legal advocacy organizations for people with disabilities called Protection and Advocacy Systems (P&As) and Client Assistance Programs (CAPs).

These two systems are the largest providers of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States. They also provide advocacy and legal representation, training, and technical assistance.

Consider reaching out to one of these agencies as you navigate these concerns. Find more information and a directory of these programs by state here.

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Healthcare coverage

Assess your healthcare coverage and understand how the divorce might affect it. For example, if you’re covered under your spouse’s health insurance, find out how long you’ll be able to stay on it even before the divorce becomes final.

Some companies have provisions that allow ex-spouses to stay on the insurance plan, but often the company will not pay for any part of that coverage. If that’s the case for you, you may also want to explore other options for coverage, such as COBRA or the Affordable Care Act.

Though COBRA can be quite expensive, it will provide coverage for 36 months post-divorce, giving you time to find something more affordable for yourself while still being insured.

Financial planning

Keeping in mind the potential costs associated with managing your chronic illness, evaluate your financial situation.

As you carefully assess your financial assets and income, be sure to take into account alimony, child support, disability insurance, and division of assets. Also, consider your employment situation. Are you able to work currently? How long might you be able to work?

Don’t forget to consider how your expenses might change in the future. Will you remain in your current home? Will you be able to afford the rent or mortgage payments?

Though no one has a crystal ball, you’ll need to consider these issues and future contingencies.

If there’s a society or association that advocates for people with your condition, you may want to check to see if they have any recommended resources for financial aid or planning, or for help with employment.

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Legal assistance

Consult with an attorney experienced in family law and divorce, preferably one who understands the complexities of chronic illnesses. They can help navigate the legal aspects and ensure your rights and interests are protected.

Again, the society or association for people with your condition may be able to recommend legal resources. Many even have counselors that can walk you through specific concerns.

Support networks

Strengthen your support network by reaching out to friends and family for support. Let them know what would be most helpful to you — whether that’s help with household tasks that your partner once performed, help getting to and from appointments, or just listening while you vent.

Emotional support during a divorce is essential, and having people who understand your health challenges can be especially beneficial. You may want to connect with support groups for people who share your health condition. You can find such groups online, through the association that advocates for your condition, or perhaps through your physician’s office.

You don’t need to go through this all on your own. Let the people who love you know that you need some support. Wouldn’t you want to know if they were going through something like this?

Don’t forget the Bezzy community: We’re here for you.

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Documentation

Keep detailed records of medical expenses, treatments, and any impact your chronic illness has on your daily life for at least the past year.

You may also want to keep records of expenses that you don’t incur annually, such as mobility aids, though your attorney will be able to advise you more specifically. This documentation can be useful in determining financial settlements.

Communication

Open and honest communication with your attorney is critical, especially if your chronic illness affects your ability to work or perform daily activities. Be transparent about your needs and limitations, as this can affect spousal support and custody arrangements.

If your divorce is amicable, being open with your spouse can also be tremendously helpful in making arrangements that meet the best interests of all involved.

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Alternative dispute resolution

Explore alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation or collaborative divorce, which can provide a more amicable and less adversarial approach to divorce proceedings. This can be particularly beneficial when dealing with health-related issues.

And always try to minimize any stress-inducing situations. Rather than litigating, try mediating!

Future planning

Plan for the future, taking into consideration your ongoing healthcare needs. This might include updating your will, power of attorney, and other legal documents to reflect your changed circumstances.

You’ll need to consider any advanced directives, power of attorney, or healthcare proxy and estate plans you’ve made in the past. These will all need to be updated post-divorce as well. An estate attorney will be able to help you sort through all these issues.

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Self-care

Prioritize self-care to manage the stress associated with divorce and chronic illness. Consider seeking therapy or counseling to help you navigate the grief and other emotional challenges that come with divorce.

Remember, every divorce case is unique, and it’s crucial to seek personalized advice from legal and healthcare professionals who can provide guidance tailored to your specific circumstances.

The takeaway

Divorce is stressful, painful, and hard under any circumstances — dealing with a chronic illness complicates everything further.

Make your physical, financial, and emotional health a priority in both daily practices and divorce negotiations.

Many people with chronic illness have successfully navigated this path, and you can too. You’ll get through this, and it may actually benefit your health in the end. Best of luck to you.

Please seek support in the Bezzy community, and remember, this too shall pass.

Fact checked on January 31, 2024


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Connect with thousands of members and find support through daily live chats, curated resources, and one-to-one messaging.

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About the author

Kathy Reagan Young

Kathy Reagan Young is a prominent patient advocate and the founder of two innovative organizations, FUMSnow.com and PatientsGettingPaid.com. She has become a leading voice in patient advocacy, driven by her personal experience with multiple sclerosis and having founded the Patients Getting Paid membership community to help people with chronic illness find and create work that both accommodates their health and generates an income. You can also find her on Facebook.

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