Divorce with Dementia or Alzheimer's

Maybe you are coupled with a dementia patient and want a divorce. Maybe you are a dementia patient yourself and want a divorce. Help is available. Start here.

A dementia diagnosis, whether it’s yours or your spouse’s, will impact all areas of your life. Unfortunately, if the two of you can no longer share the things that once made your marriage intimate, supportive, and enjoyable, one spouse may decide to explore divorce.

How does this work when you’ve vowed to love, honor, and cherish each other through thick and thin? What happens to an incapacitated spouse when the healthy spouse moves on? And when is it okay to consider your own needs?

What is dementia? What is Alzheimer’s disease?

When one spouse has been diagnosed with vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of cognitive impairment, the future may seem bleak. Yet in the early stages, most couples initially find the courage to face the diagnosis together.

As cognitive function continues to diminish, however, a great strain may settle between two married people. One person becomes the patient, totally dependent on their spouse to meet their personal care needs. The other becomes the caregiver, bound by duty to stay at their loved one’s side, regardless of how harrowing it becomes.

Forms of dementia

While many people use the terms dementia and Alzheimer’s interchangeably, they’re technically different. Dementia is a broader term used to define cognitive impairment that can eventually impact a person’s ability to act independently. While dementia is not always age-related, it’s estimated that almost one-third of all adults 85 and older have some form of dementia. 

There are several forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known and common form. Other types include vascular dementia (often the result of a stroke), Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia, which you may have heard about in the news because of Bruce Willis’ fairly recent frontotemporal dementia diagnosis.

In all forms of dementia, cognitive skills tend to diminish. Some people decline at a faster rate than others. Given enough time, the sufferer may lose their independence and become completely reliant on others for their care, whether it’s their spouse, a hired caregiver, or the staff at an assisted living home, nursing home, or another long-term care facility.

Recognizing the stages of dementia

Diagnosing dementia is rarely clear-cut and can be challenging for everyone. There is no single test doctors can use to diagnose dementia, so they must rely on a combination of memory tests, blood tests, cognitive and neurological evaluations, and brain scans to get an idea of a person’s level of functioning and how it may have diminished.

As it stands, scientists still don’t fully understand how and why some people develop dementia and others don’t.

As a progressive disease, dementia has several stages. 

  • In its early stage, symptoms of dementia are mild. They are often unnoticeable to others. Symptoms can include a slowing of thought or speech or mild memory loss. 
  • The middle stage of dementia can result in more noticeable memory issues and loss of thought processing and life management skills. The individual may find it harder to recognize people or remember new information. Time and space can become problematic, with the person having a hard time orienting themselves to time or location. At this point, they may begin to become frustrated, angry, depressed, and even paranoid. 
  • Late-stage dementia is when people typically need full-time care and support. Many people time-shift and think they are navigating an earlier stage of their life with people who are no longer there. They may have no recollection of something they just did or said and no recognition of friends or family members. A dementia sufferer may be unable to take care of their most basic personal care needs and may experience a broad range of moods and behaviors, from apathy and depression to anger and violence. 

Dementia and divorce

When we marry, we vow to support each other for better or worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part. But living with a spouse with dementia or Alzheimer’s can test those vows unlike anything else life throws at us. 

By the time dementia has progressed to the middle and final stages, a marriage has profoundly changed. It’s no longer an equal relationship where spouses enjoy each other’s company and make decisions together. Instead, it may now be a patient/caregiver relationship. What’s more, the caregiver may feel (and be) highly unqualified to provide the psychological and medical care required by the dementia sufferer.

The ill spouse may begin to exhibit drastic personality and behavior changes. At more advanced stages, they may become verbally and physically abusive. The caregiving spouse may become afraid of their once-loving partner. They may no longer be emotionally or physically able to address the overwhelming needs of their spouse. 

Caregiver fatigue

Even when a caregiving spouse wants to remain devoted to their partner, they may suffer from caregiver fatigue that impacts their physical well-being and mental health. They may feel overwhelmed by frustration and anger or long for their former “normal” life.

When a spouse is struggling with a partner’s dementia, they may decide that the time has come to consider a divorce from their partner. 

Divorcing a dementia patient in a no-fault state

States laws regulate marriage and divorce. Today, 17 states plus the District of Columbia are considered pure no-fault states. They include California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

In a no-fault state, an individual filing for divorce does not have to prove grounds or fault for the marriage’s breakdown. This means a couple can divorce due to undefined “irreconcilable differences.” Consequently, when someone divorces a spouse with dementia, they will file for a no-fault divorce. 

But a spouse with dementia still has the legal right to fair property division and even spousal support. Depending on the affected spouse’s ability to understand what is happening and whether they are capable of making their own decisions, they may be entitled to additional legal protections by the court.

A judge may appoint a guardian ad litem to make sure the ill spouse’s legal interests are fully represented. The guardian ad litem is trained to advocate for people with mental decline and will report directly to the court, ensuring the ill spouse’s best interests. 

Divorcing a dementia patient in a fault state

Fault states have historically required that a spouse file for divorce based on legal grounds. Although these vary from state to state, grounds for divorce are a set of legally recognized reasons that a couple can be granted a divorce. But every state now offers a no-fault option for divorce, and fault-based divorces have become increasingly uncommon. 

A person choosing to file for divorce from a spouse with dementia would typically use the no-fault grounds for divorce, commonly referred to as irreconcilable differences. But depending on the level of the ill spouse’s ability to understand and agree to the divorce, the court may require additional assurances that their rights are being fully protected, appointing a guardian ad litem.

Some states also provide for mental incapacity as grounds for divorce. It is important for a spouse to get jurisdiction-specific legal advice if they intend to pursue a mental incapacity grounds for divorce. 

What if the dementia patient refuses to accept the divorce or is the one who wants the divorce?

While people in advanced stages of dementia may no longer practically be able to make their own decisions, they may resist a spouse’s attempt to divorce them, or they may suddenly decide to ask for a divorce from their spouse. 

Depending on the level of cognitive decline, if a person suffering from dementia wants to file for or refuses to accept a divorce, it may also require the appointment of a guardian ad litem by the court. A guardian ad litem can file for or accept a divorce on behalf of their ward if it can be proven that the divorce is in that spouse’s best interest. 

Getting support

Living with a partner who has been diagnosed with dementia can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming and exhausting. No spouse ever wants to make the heartbreaking decisions that are often required. And yet, these are decisions that many are faced with.

If you’re considering a divorce from a spouse with dementia, the mental capacity of your partner can create some legal complexities. At Hello Divorce, our skilled legal team can offer advice to help you make the right decisions for yourself and your spouse. 


Suggested: Divorce Involving Spouses with Special Needs