April is National Autism Awareness Month, and this is a good time to discuss the divorce process involving a special needs child. Each year, parents of over a million children get divorced. Everyone is impacted by divorce, but it tends to be especially hard on children who are disabled.
The issues regarding the best interests of a child with special needs tend to be highly complex. There is a lot of extra planning involved to ensure that the child is taken care of physically, emotionally, and financially both now, and as he/she transitions into adulthood. This requires the commitment of both parents to the well-being of their child.
There are several unique issues that need to be addressed when a divorce involves a child with special needs. Here are some of the most important:
Parenting Plans and Overnights
Parenting is one of the major issues spouses with a disabled child will have to deal with. In a typical divorce, the parenting responsibilities usually end when the child becomes an adult. This may not be the case with a special needs child. Many such children are still dependent when they enter adulthood. For this reason, parents need to take a long-term view of the situation and understand that the parenting arrangement they make could last for many decades.
As for the parenting plan itself, a typical arrangement might involve changing homes for overnights during the middle of the week, on alternate weekends, and extended parenting time during holidays and summer break. This type of schedule may not be appropriate for a child with special needs. Oftentimes, it is best to have less frequent transitions to allow the child to adapt to his/her new routine. The parenting plan you develop should take into consideration the unique needs of the child with guidance of qualified professionals that may be involved in their care.
Spousal and Child Support
Caring for a special needs child is a full-time job in and of itself. If there is a case of spousal support, this needs to be considered. If one parent needs to stay at home all the time to care for the child and cannot work, this should be reflected in the spousal support agreement. Children with disabilities have an increased need for medical care, treatments, therapies, etc. There may also be a need to hire an in-home caregiver to provide respite care for the custodial parent. When determining child support, these and other expenses should be considered.
Special needs children are often eligible for public benefits both as a minor and as an adult. Maintaining eligibility for these benefits is crucial in ensuring that your child receives the care he/she needs. For example, in many cases, SSI and Medicaid benefits can remain intact by setting up a special needs trust and paying support payments directly to the trustee. Spousal and child support agreements should be reviewed by a qualified CPA, estate planning lawyer, or financial advisor to make sure they are structured properly and preserve important benefits.
Cooperation is Critical
Divorcing spouses with a special needs child have many important issues to consider that go far beyond what comes up in a typical divorce. Many couples in this situation opt for divorce mediation to work out these issues. During mediation, spouses negotiate the terms and conditions of their divorce in a cooperative rather than combative setting. This gives them greater control over the process and allows them to resolve their issues amicably and in-keeping with the best interests of their child.