January 23, 2015 | Share
Disability and Divorce: Pop Culture Teaches an Unpopular Lesson
The movie "The Theory of Everything," released November 2014, chronicles the life and love of Stephen Hawking and his wife of 30 years, Jane Wilde. Based on Wilde's memoir, the movie tells the story of the young couple marrying in 1965 at the early stages of Hawking's motor neuron disease.
During the next 10 years, the disease accelerated rapidly and Wilde became responsible for Hawking's around-the-clock care, assisting with his work, all while being a mother to his children. As Hawking became increasingly debilitated, Wilde became increasingly overwhelmed with all of these roles. Live-in nurses and assistants joined the family to help with Hawking's physical needs as well as his new international fame that accompanied the publication of "A Brief History of Time" in 1988. In 1995, he divorced Wilde and married Elaine Mason, one of his nurses.
Although what happened to Hawking and Wilde may give people pause, it is by no means uncommon. Divorce attorneys in Collin County and elsewhere throughout the state know that debilitating illness in a spouse alters the marriage in sadly predictable ways.
When "In Sickness and In Health" is Forgotten
A group of oncologists and researchers conducted a study of 515 patients from 2001-2006. The study started with married men and women who were diagnosed with a serious illness and tracked their marital status. The study found that overall, women who received a diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening illness were seven times more likely to become separated or divorced than men with similar diagnoses.
Breaking down the divorce rate of their patients and study subjects, the researchers concluded that when men became ill, only three percent were likely to get divorced. However, when women became seriously ill, 21 percent became separated or divorced.
What the study also showed (and what the Hawking movie and his real life exemplify) is that men do not suffer the same fate when they become seriously ill. Women fulfill the "in sickness and in health" vow and become caregivers to their ill husbands. Even when there are existing marital problems when the husband is diagnosed, wives will reconsider their plans to separate or divorce and stay to provide care to their ill husbands.
The above study was published in 2009. A new study undertaken by researchers at the University of Michigan was published in May of 2014. The intervening five years did not change the results. The study followed 2,717 married couples where at least one of the spouses was over 50 at the start of the study. One of the spouses was diagnosed with a serious disease such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease, etc. The results of the study found that 31 percent of those marriages ended in divorce and that divorce was more common when the wife was the one who was ill.
The Power of the Pre- and Post-Nuptial Agreement
While behaviors may not change, spouses can protect themselves with a pre-nuptial or a post-nuptial agreement. If a defined serious or life-threatening illness affects a spouse and separation or divorce occurs, agreeing that certain monetary, property and other provisions will be awarded can protect one to a certain extent. To discuss these and other options, contact the Collin County divorce attorneys at Nordhaus Walpole, PLLC today.
Categories: Family Law & Divorce