Divorce is emotionally difficult for everyone, and this is especially true when children are involved. But when a couple has a child with special needs, it can become even more complicated.
For instance, many parents argue over child-rearing decisions, such as where the children attend school, the activities in which they participate, and their religious upbringing. But when a child has special needs, it’s even more important for the parents to find a way to make decisions together, because there are simply more decisions to make – including special school programs, medical treatments, and many other concerns.
Custody can be difficult. A “typical” custody arrangement might find a child shuttling back and forth between parents on a regular basis, in order to keep both parents in the child’s life and maximize each parent’s time with the child. But this arrangement doesn’t always work well for special-needs children.
Many children on the autism spectrum, for example, benefit greatly from a stable, predictable environment, and can have tremendous difficulty with abrupt or frequent change. Moving from home to home each week could have a very detrimental effect on such a child.
A teenager with cerebral palsy might require special lifting and transfer equipment. If this equipment is available at only one parent’s home, then extended visits to the other parent’s home could result in the child’s having very limited mobility.
In such cases, it’s often necessary to create a unique custody arrangement that responds to the child’s needs while also attempting to respect each parent’s interest in spending time with the child.
Financial issues can also be a challenge. In addition to standard child-rearing costs such as food, clothing, and activities, parents of special-needs children may have to plan for the cost of doctors, medication, special equipment, handicap accessibility in their homes and vehicles, and private-school tuition in some cases.
Some children require special diets that are more costly than standard diets. Others have to frequently replace expensive orthopedic devices as they keep growing.
While standard child-support formulas often assume that both parents will be working, parents who are looking after a special-needs child simply might not be able to work full-time, or might incur larger-than-usual child-care costs if they do.
And while child support typically ends when children reach adulthood, that’s not necessarily the case for special-needs children. Such children might require a great deal of time, support and expense into adulthood, and it’s important for divorcing parents to make plans as to how the children’s needs will be met beyond the age when child support usually ends.
Life insurance is an additional issue. Many divorce agreements require parents to maintain life insurance for the benefit of their children, but this can be even more important with a special-needs child.
Finally, if a child is eligible for SSI or Medicaid as a result of a disability, it’s very important to be careful in drawing up a divorce agreement, because it’s possible for certain divorce payments to disqualify a child for government benefits. There are a number of techniques (such as trusts) that can avoid or at least limit this problem.
In short, divorces involving children with special needs are highly complicated, and having an experienced attorney to help you is essential.