How to Prove Alcohol Abuse in Custody Cases

The legal seas in a custody battle can be stormy on their own. Add excessive alcohol use into the mix? The stakes get even higher.

This guide is designed to help you understand how alcohol abuse impacts custody in general, how to prove alcohol abuse in custody cases and provide you with the steps and information you need to do so.

Concerned about a co-parent’s sobriety?

Can Alcohol Abuse Impact Custody?

The short answer? Absolutely.

Before we dive into the long answer, it’s key to understand the general types of child custody.

Types of Custody: A Brief Overview

  • Legal custody Indicates who is responsible for making key, long-term decisions about a child’s upbringing – such as their schooling, medical care, extracurricular activities, or religion.
  • Physical custody – Indicates where the children will live. Physical custody may be joint (shared), but not necessarily evenly split between parents.
  • Joint custody – Both parents share the responsibility of raising their child, and therefore must agree on key decisions. This can be legal or physical.
  • Sole custody – Only one parent is responsible for making all decisions about their child’s upbringing (without needing to consult the other parent) and has primary physical custody.

The type of custody arrangement enacted depends on what the court must prioritize above all else: the best interests of the child.

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

Now, there’s no precise formula for determining what’s in a child’s best interests, but judges are often directed to consider a variety of factors, such as:

  • a parent’s physical and mental health
  • each parent’s financial stability and ability to fulfill a child’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.)
  • a child’s age, gender, relationship with each parent, and personal preferences

This list of factors varies from state to state.

But where does alcohol abuse come into play?

Unfortunately, substance abuse is a common issue impacting children in the US – around 1 in 8 reside with a parent who has a substance use disorder.1 One study found that 12.1% of kids in the US live with at least one parent who, specifically, has alcohol use disorder. Consequently, addiction and alcohol abuse are explicitly mentioned in many custody clauses nationwide.2

However, even if a state’s clauses don’t directly mention substance abuse, judges usually consider it. If one parent is struggling with alcohol issues, it’s likely to make them question how suitable that parent is for creating a stable environment for the child. This affects what’s best for the child.

So, in custody cases involving alcohol, being sober is generally seen as being dependable and capable in the eyes of the court.

Something else to note: Family courts often see regular parenting time as vital for a child’s well-being. When there’s clear evidence of a parent struggling with alcohol abuse, judges usually work on ways to keep kids safe during visits rather than cutting off all parenting time, even in cases of sole custody.

How to Prove Alcohol Abuse in Family Court: Gathering Evidence

What prompts a judge to address alcohol use or require alcohol testing in custody proceedings?

Often, a parent only needs to report the presence of a drinking issue. In certain states, proof of an alcohol abuse disorder must additionally be provided.

Either way, gathering evidence is a wise move – the more, the better – and can only serve to bolster your case.

stacked evidence custody alcohol
Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Types of Evidence for Proving Alcohol Abuse for Custody Cases:

Alcohol Lab Test Results

  • EtG Tests. Short for “ethyl glucuronide,” these tests measure how much alcohol a person’s body has processed in the past 2-3 days. They are highly sensitive and can detect small amounts of alcohol. Usually, urine samples are collected but EtG tests can also be used to detect alcohol in hair, blood, or nails.

    However, EtG tests have sparked controversy and legal challenges for their susceptibility to false positives caused by non-recent alcohol exposure (e.g., hand sanitizer or mouthwash) and various other factors – which is why SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) cautions that these tests lack “sufficient proven specificity for use as primary or sole evidence that an individual prohibited from drinking.”3
  • Phosphatidylethanol (PEth) Tests. These blood tests can show if someone has consumed large amounts of alcohol in the past 2-3 weeks, but are less sensitive than EtG tests. PEth is produced by the body when it metabolizes ethanol (alcohol).

Remote Alcohol Monitoring Test Results

As a remote alcohol monitoring service, we’d be remiss not to mention the powerful evidence it can provide in custody cases.

Unlike traditional lab tests, remote alcohol monitoring relies on connected breathalyzers to check a person’s BAC (blood alcohol content). No need for parents to rush to a specific place for a test – breathalyzer tests can be taken anywhere.

More importantly, a breathalyzer test shows if someone had alcohol at a specific moment rather than just at “some point” over time. This is crucial in custody cases to see if a parent is drinking, for example, when they’re with their child.

Here’s how BACtrack View’s court-approved system works:

Your co-parent gets text reminders, either regularly or randomly, to do a breathalyzer test. Each test is logged with the date, time, and place. BACtrack View even lets you download test records as neat PDFs for court. If there’s a pattern of positive or missed tests, it could suggest a drinking issue, which can be used as evidence in custody matters.

bactrack view customer using breathalyzer
Real BACtrack View user, Brooke.

Need evidence of drinking to share in court? Try BACtrack View.

You can obtain records of alcohol-related convictions, like DUIs or public intoxication charges, to show a pattern of substance abuse.

To elaborate further on DUIs: The circumstances under which a parent received one can influence a custody case differently. For example, multiple DUIs will likely demonstrate a pattern of problem drinking (as opposed to a single DUI). Furthermore, the context of a DUI – the parent’s recorded BAC level, whether the child was in the vehicle, etc. – can impact the outcome of a custody case.4

Witness Testimony

When friends or family share firsthand experiences of a parent’s behavior while drinking, it can shed light on the situation.

Medical Records

Doctors can note down what they find during exams or tests that point to a parent having issues with alcohol.

Employment Records

Looking at termination papers or other work documents can reveal how a parent’s drinking affected their job or ability to keep steady employment.

Assessment by a Substance Abuse Professional

A judge may request an evaluation by a substance abuse professional to gain insight into a parent’s alcohol consumption and its potential impact on their parenting abilities.

Credit Card Statements or Receipts

Financial records can indicate a parent’s frequent or significant alcohol expenditures.

alcohol receipt for custody
Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

Social Media Posts.

A parent’s social media content, or posts involving them, could reveal signs of intoxication or alcohol use.


Incoherent communications can illustrate a parent’s conduct while under the influence or seeking alcohol. These may include voicemails, texts, emails, and video calls.

Custody Evaluation Reports.

Court-ordered reports evaluate a parent’s suitability for custody, potentially referencing alcohol use or dependency if observed.

Evidence Gathered by a Private Investigator (PI).

In situations where obtaining direct proof is challenging, a private investigator can aid in collecting evidence of alcohol consumption.

What Happens Next: Custody Outcomes

After gathering evidence of alcohol abuse, it’s essential to know what the possible outcomes could be for custody battles.

Depending on the severity and frequency of a parent’s drinking issue, a judge may order:

  • Changes to custody arrangements and rights
  • Supervised visitation
  • Amending a parenting agreement to include a sobriety clause, which typically requires a parent to be sober (and perhaps prove they’re sober) during parenting time
  • Continued alcohol monitoring or testing
  • An ignition interlock device, which requires a person to blow into a breathalyzer to start their car
  • A mandate to attend an addiction treatment program. The court may specify:
    • The length of rehab required
    • How a parent may communicate with their child while in treatment
    • Consequences in the event a parent fails to complete the program
    • Who pays for the program
  • Counseling
  • A court-ordered psychological evaluation
gavel custody court
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

3 Takeaways

In conclusion, navigating a custody case where alcohol use is a concern is undoubtedly challenging. But not insurmountable.

It’s crucial to approach this process with a supportive mindset, understanding that the ultimate goal is the well-being and safety of the children involved. Three key takeaways:

  1. Document everything. Keep detailed records and evidence of any concerning behavior, including alcohol use or abuse.
  2. Consult with professionals. Seek guidance from lawyers, substance abuse professionals, and other relevant experts to ensure you’re taking the right steps.
  3. Prioritize the children’s best interests. The court will always prioritize the safety and well-being of the children above anything else. Keep this in mind as you navigate your custody case and work towards a resolution that benefits everyone involved.
  1. Lipari, R.N. & Van Horn, S.L. (2017, August 24). Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. The CBHSQ Report: August 24, 2017. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD. ↩︎
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