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Couples vow on their wedding day to care for one another in both health and sickness. However, a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan suggests a growing number of spouses aren’t holding up the latter half of that bargain. One-third of marriages in which a spouse falls ill ends in divorce, researchers say.

It appears whatever flaws exist in a union become amplified with the stress and hardship of one spouse falling seriously ill.

Divorce attorneys in New York City recognize that these cases require special attention. For example, issues of health insurance become matters of key importance. Judges deciding child custody may factor in the ill parent’s ability to provide for the child’s day-to-day needs. Spousal support, too, may be ordered to the ailing person, where it otherwise might not have been, depending on the severity of the illness and expected outcome.

For this study, researchers sifted through data on more than 2,700 marriages and outcomes over the course of two decades, beginning in 1992. The study authors analyzed how the onset of one of four serious physical illnesses affected marriages. Specifically, they looked at cancer, lung disease, stroke and heart problems. What they found was 31 percent of those marriages affected by one of these illnesses ended in divorce.

Women in particular seem to be at a double disadvantage. Men were most often the ones who developed these diseases, so they were at higher risk of becoming widowed. Conversely, when it was the woman who fell ill, there spouse was twice as likely to file for divorce, as compared to when the situation was reversed.

Researchers didn’t specifically delve into this disparity as part of the formal data mining, but they did generate a few theories. The first theory is that social expectations and gender norms regarding care taking could make it tougher for males to provide care to ailing wives. Secondly, because men tend to die sooner, the more they age, the more prospective partners they may find among divorced women.

This same pattern has borne out in previous studies. In both 2001 and 2009, researchers at the Penn State School of Medicine analyzed the issue and found married women are more likely to become separated or divorced following a terminal illness diagnosis.

If an ill spouse maintains health insurance through the other, sometimes it can be best to postpone or cancel the divorce proceedings, if at all possible, in order to ensure continued health care coverage through the course of the illness. However, sometimes that simply isn’t ideal or possible. In those cases, a divorce attorney can work to have your spouse’s health insurance coverage continue as part of the divorce settlement or spousal maintenance award, at least until Medicare, Social Security Disability or some other form of insurance and/or financial assistance can be made available.

Additionally, spouses in this situation may need additional assistance with estate planning documents. Records for health care power of attorney, advanced medical directives and your will may need to be revised. One must be careful how this is done, however, because once a divorce is filed, most assets are likely to be lumped into the “marital estate” and can’t simply be gifted or transferred without prior approval from the court.

If you are contemplating a divorce in New York City, call our offices at (718) 864-2011.

Additional Resources:

‘Til sickness do us part: How Illness Affects the Risk of Divorce, May 1, 2014, University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research

More Blog Entries:

Boulds v. Nielson – Just Because You Weren’t Married Doesn’t Mean You Won’t End Up in Court, May 16, 2014, New York City Divorce Lawyer Blog