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Veterans in Family Law Cases

Words cannot describe what a pleasure it is to represent those who serve our country in the armed forces, especially those who have recently returned from some far off place that I’ve only read about, or seen on CNN.  It’s not just the thought of helping someone who has put their life on the line for our national defense; it’s also the organization and discipline they bring to a case from an administrative stand point.  If I need a particular document to prove some factual or legal point during the representation, they get me the document immediately.  If I ask for a piece of information, they will move the earth to obtain and relay the information, often before I am ready to process it.  Unfortunately, most people do not possess that level of discipline.

But as with all good things, these otherwise positive traits and life experiences can come at a cost. Armed forces personnel seem to develop a sense of discipline that can, for some, result in an abnormally high degree of frustration when confronted with life stressors that are beyond their immediate control. When they return home from tours of duty with PTSD or other psychological issues to cope with, they often have trouble adapting to circumstances that do not resemble the structure and organization of military practices and procedures. The result is often drug or alcohol abuse, and a higher prevalence of domestic violence.  Various studies have verified these effects:

  • 81% of  veterans suffering from depression and PTSD engaged in at least one violent act against their partner in the past year. – Dept. of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health & Environmental Hazards (Jan 2009)
  • Male veterans with PTSD are 2 to 3 times more likely to engage in domestic violence compared to those without PTSD. – Dept. of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health & Environmental Hazards (Jan 2009)
  • 44% of the of the veterans who accessed services at the VA were diagnosed with one or more mental health injuries – M.D. Sherman, F. Sautter, M.H. Hope, J.A. Lyons and X. Han, “Domestic Violence in Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Who Seek Couples Therapy.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (2006)

One does not need to conduct a sociological study to conclude that divorce and other family law litigation will result at higher rates under these circumstances.

Having represented many of these individuals in family law cases, I’ve witnessed affected military personnel react to courtroom settings in different ways.  Some clients are overwhelmed by stress or depression, leading them to resist rehabilitative services in favor of self-medication and substance abuse, or withdrawal into depression, or both.  Others insist on exercising too much control over their case and totally refuse to participate in case plans to rebuild a healthy family dynamic.  Others openly accept responsibility for their circumstances, and utilize their heightened discipline to affect positive change.

Dependency cases in family courts can demonstrate the struggles of affected veterans on a very personal level. For those who are unfamiliar, a dependency case is one where a child is alleged to be abused or neglected, or imminently threatened with abuse or neglect, for one or more of many reasons. Very often the issue revolves around substance abuse.  I recall a young father in a family court dependency case in 2008 who had recently returned from combat and begun using marijuana to cope with anxiety and PTSD.  The child was not injured or even neglected, but his drug abuse and condition created an imminent threat of abuse or neglect.  The Alabama Department of Human Resources therefore intervened to protect the child from that risk.

The young man was a great client who followed my advice and, after some early setbacks, regained a healthy relationship with his child. However, he often visibly trembled in the courtroom hallway waiting for his case to be heard by the judge. This wasn’t a criminal case and he was not at risk of being incarcerated.  He was deeply concerned for both himself and his child, which is obviously a good thing, but his unrelenting anxiety was an issue for him in the case until he got proper psychological treatment (in that case, a temporary mixture of counseling and psychotropic medication).  In other words, until he found proper outlets to address his post-deployment psychological conditions, the temptation to self-medicate through drug abuse was overwhelming. In time, we addressed the issues in court and the young man resumed a normal life. This was a relatively mild dependency case, but more sever issues can develop through domestic violence. Nevertheless, almost every case or set of circumstances has a remedy that will benefit an affected individual.

Some affected veterans do not fair as well in legal proceedings. Acknowledging a need for rehabilitation and participating in various services can be difficult enough, but it is certainly harder for those who are trained to be stronger than the average person.

Veterans can find help in almost any community, and some service providers will cater to the needs of military personnel.  In the Destin/Niceville area of Florida, a list of providers is provided by the Mental Health Association of Okaloosa and Walton Counties.  Click HERE for more information.


Andrew D. Wheeer is a family law, elder law and appellate attorney, and the founder of The Wheeler Firm, PA. Andrew only take cases in those practice areas in order to focus on those special areas of the law. With offices in Fort Walton Beach and Miramar Beach, Andrew represents clients throughout Okaloosa and Walton counties, and has represented more than 2,000 clients over the course of the past 15 years. Andrew attended the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, and graduated with a Juris Doctorate of law in 2002. While attending law school, Andrew was active in numerous legal writing opportunities, won awards for legal writing and was selected as a member of the Cumberland Law Review. Andrew was then accepted to the Cumberland Study Abroad Program and attended Durham University in Durham, England. Andrew also worked as a research assistant and intern for Chief Magistrate Judge John Ott in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. Over the next 15 years, Andrew represented thousands of clients in divorce, adoption, custody modification proceedings, child support contempt actions, probate litigation, and counseled clients on elder law rights, including long-term care planning and general estate planning. Andrew believes clients desire representation from attorneys who have a thorough understanding of their specific legal issues. Therefore, after beginning his career as a general practitioner, Andrew chose to focus his career on a few specific areas of law - those that affect the family. He continues to concentrate on those areas today. Andrew regularly interacts with the public by speaking to groups of people on family and elder law topics, including long-term care planning and techniques to avoid probate litigation. In 2012, Andrew began teaching seminars on adoption law through the National Business Institute, providing guidance to other attorneys on proper procedures to secure adoptions of children. Andrew is married to Regina Wheeler, with whom he has a son, and the family resides in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Andrew serves as President of the Destin Kiwanis Club and is active in the local chambers of commerce.

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