There is a certain irrationality inherent in contentious divorce and child custody cases. Many people going through such an experience might label their spouse as mentally unstable. If such mental instability is an actual psychological condition, as opposed to mere name calling, it can be particularly relevant when custody of minor children is in dispute.
When it comes to determining a person’s ability to parent minor children, a parent’s mental health may be under high scrutiny. Illinois Supreme Court Rules provide a mechanism through which a party to a divorce or child custody proceeding can call into question the opposing party’s mental health and request that he or she submit to an examination by a mental health professional.
Specifically, under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 215, in a case where a party’s mental condition (or the mental condition of a person under a party’s custody or legal control, i.e., a minor child) is in question, the Court may order a physical or mental examination. Procedurally, the party questioning the mental health of another must file a motion the Court within a reasonable amount of time prior to trial. The motion must identify a particular proposed examiner and set forth the examiner’s specialty or discipline. The court may, but is not required, to use the suggested examiner. If the court refuses to appoint the suggested examiner, it may allow the moving party to suggest alternative examiners. If the court grants the motion, Rule 215 provides other specifics relating to the logistics of the examination, including but not limited to, distance for travel to an examination, compensation for loss of earnings to undergo the examination, and the like. The examiner must provide a report to the court within 21 days of completion of the examination.
Seeking such an examination is particularly important when a parent has a well-founded fear for his or her child’s safety in the care of the other parent. However, such procedures can be abused. There are situations where a parent may make meritless allegations regarding the mental state of the other parent simply to harass, embarrass, or vexatiously prolong the litigation. However, making such allegations without a valid basis is not only improper, but it can be extremely expensive, overly litigious, and in the end, damaging to the case and family.
In the recent unpublished of In re Marriage of Newberry, a husband, Timothy, and wife, Cheryl, were in the midst of a divorce. Cheryl had sought custody of the parties’ three minor children. Thereafter, Timothy filed a Rule 215 motion to have Cheryl submit to a mental health examination “to determine if Cheryl suffered from bi-polar disorder.” The trial dismissed Timothy’s 215 motion. Timothy then amended and re-filed his motion. He also filed a motion for authorization to take the deposition of Cheryl’s former physician, which the trial court denied without prejudice.
Nine witnesses testified at trial, including two of the parties’ adult children, two of Cheryl’s friends whose daughters were friends with the parties’ minor children, and Cheryl’s sister-in-law. They all testified to the effect that they did not believe Cheryl had any mental issues or illness. Cheryl also testified. She admitted she had previously been medicated for menstrual issues, and claimed she had seen a ghost in the marital residence approximately 10 years prior, an issue the family laughed about. She also took and passed a drug test.
Timothy testified that Cheryl said she was depressed and suffered from insomnia. He testified that he believed “something was wrong with Cheryl” and that the children were not safe when with her.
The trial court denied Timothy’s Rule 215 motion, and granted sole custody of the minor children to Cheryl. Specifically, the court found that there had “not been any disclosure from a witness or party that somehow a mental issue had affected the relationship between either parent and the children.” Furthermore, Timothy was ordered to pay $2,000 of Cheryl’s attorney’s fees due to his “undue litigiousness.”
Timothy appealed and argued that the trial court erred when it denied his request for a mental health examination of Cheryl. Timothy pointed out that the previous version of Rule 215 required “good cause,” but that this requirement had been eliminated. However, the Appellate Court noted that a trial court still has discretion to grant or deny a Rule 215 motion. The Appellate Court stated, “Rule 215 is a rule of discovery; it ‘does not permit unlimited and indiscriminate mental and physical examinations of persons but by its terms gives a trial court discretion to order such examinations only when certain requirements are met.’”
The Appellate Court found that Timothy produced no credible evidence that Cheryl’s mental state was in controversy. Rather, he simply made baseless allegations without facts to support them. In his Rule 215 motion, he simply “failed to allege any behavior that might call into question Cheryl’s mental health specifically as it relates to her ability to have custody of the minor children.”
In summary, in order to obtain a Rule 215 examination, the person to be examined must be either a party to the case, or a person in a party’s custody or legal control. Second, the physical or mental condition of the parson must actually be in controversy. Thirdly, the court has discretion to order the examination or deny the request.
So if you are in the throes of a nasty divorce and you truly believe that your spouse’s mental health is at issue, a Rule 215 motion may be necessary. But before you do, check your motives because the trial court certainly will.