Parents of a special needs child face many challenges while raising and nurturing their child. Many marriages falter and end in divorce due to the stressful demands required of parents with a special needs child. The stressors and emotional pressure that exists prior to the initiation of a divorce frequently accelerates during the divorce process. A special needs child is seriously affected by their parental decisions made during a divorce.
A divorce does not bring out the best in any couple. In the case of a special needs child, thoughtful and prudent care of the child should always be the main objective of both parents so the child knows that he/she is loved by both parents and is not at risk. A special needs child will experience serious emotional and behavioral problems during this time becoming more vulnerable and not knowing what is happening in life. The child is often afraid that he/she is losing Mom and Dad due to false and misplaced self-imposed guilt.
Many parents have already struggled with questions surrounding their child’s special needs such as correct diagnoses or the validly of treatments for their child’s conditions. During serious custody battles, such concerns become the focus of intense parental conflicts.
Some of the more serious concerns are:
A child’s reactions to overly permissive or excessively rigid parenting
Use and dosage of prescribed medicines for a diagnosed problem
Proper diagnosis being made by a competent professional
Whether a professional label and diagnosis will be noted in school records
Whether a child be placed in special education classes for leaning or emotional disabilities. Whether one parent is so occupied with the special need child that the parent has lost perspective on how to best manage the child
Often one parent accepts a child’s diagnosis given by the specialist and actively advocates for the child, while the other parent may remain in denial of the child’s obvious needs. Which parent is actually and consistently working in the child’s best interests?
Special efforts are needed when setting up possession schedules for your special needs child. Both parents must understand the nature of the child’s physical/emotional problems and the level that the child can function. When the child spends time in each parent’s home, both parents must reasonably work together and agree on a parenting approach that addresses the child’s needs.
When parents cannot agree upon the child’s actual needs and course of care, the court may appoint a specialist to conduct a complete evaluation of the child. From this evaluation the specialist will offer specific opinions to the parents and court regarding the nature of the child’s special needs and specifically address these needs.
In a divorce involving a special needs child many joint decisions are critical to and impact a child’s self-esteem. Other family issues and problems may need to temporally be put aside between the parents to assure a special needs child will fully receive the attention needed. We suggest that in the divorce decree a parenting plan be included setting out specific provisions for the care of the child.
Some suggested items to include in this Plan would be:
Can the child be cared for in the home or an outside facility and how would these costs be covered?
Medical, educational, and therapeutic interventions and decision making authority
Treatments not covered by insurance. Who is responsible as to the authority and cost?
Working with the child’s school to implement plans for the educational needs of the child.
Care decisions on parents’ ability to work outside the home with a special needs child
Handling of Lifetime care and support and the cost necessary for the special needs child
Divorces with children are painful and emotional under the best of circumstances, but a divorce with a “Special Needs Child” is usually a very complex and mentally stressful situation for all family members involved.
The main goal in a “Special Needs” divorce is that all decisions affecting a child with disabilities must be in the “Best Interest of the Child.”
What is the “Best Interest of the “Special Needs Child”? Often this is the very reason that the parents are divorcing. The parents cannot agree on the existence of a disability or the best approach needed for care and support for their special needs child. Many times a medical/neutral professional will need to be involved to help the parents transition the new “after” divorce life of the child and parents.
When working with parents of a “Special Needs Child”, our attorneys focus on the most critical issues impacting the child and the family unit.
Some of these important issues are:
- Keeping the relationships between the family members agreeable in making the necessary decisions concerning visitation and transitions between both parents’ homes. You child needs contact with both parents unless there is an abuse or addiction issue or the other parent’s home is an unsafe environment for the “Special Needs” Child.
- Agreed upon health and medical care issues including special therapies to address the child’s needs. Let the child know that both parents are in agreement on the care for the child.
- Special social and recreational opportunities and appropriate educational programs are available for the child and her/his disability and should be agreed upon by both parents, if possible.
- Coordinate structured and regular visitation dates with same place drop off points. Give your child a calendar with visitation dates and let her/him be prepared to visit the other parent.
- Helping the parent to find a support group of family, friends, counselors and neighbors to help your family with your “Special Needs” Child. This help may come in many forms, mental and physical support, financial planning or just a good hug to say “you are ok”.
What is very important in a “Special Needs” Divorce is to realize what is “normal” in most divorces may not be the norm here. There are many important situations that will have to be resolved before the divorce can be finalized. The divorced parents of the “Special Needs” Child will continue to have to work together for what is best for their child.
Other serious considerations to settle:
- The transitions after a divorce on living arrangements and visitations for the child. It will be difficult to use a standard visitation schedule and a special parenting plan will have to be agreed upon to meet all of the child’s needs.
- The divorce decree will have to be custom designed to make sure the needs of the child will be met for the child’s entire life. The final divorce decree may have to be modified for the child’s benefit.
- Be knowledgeable of the financial aspect of your “Special Needs” Child. What type of care will be needed on a daily basis and will one parent have to give up all monetary benefits from employment outside of the home to take care of the child.
- List all expenses of raising this child: medical costs, food for special nutritional diets, special medical equipment needed for use of child, special schooling and transportation needs. This is very important to make sure the needs of the child will be met.
- Spousal Maintenance/Alimony: this amount must be worked out to ensure the caregiving parent will be able to afford all need of the child and their household. Many times this parent will not be able to work out of the home because of the constant care for the child. This will usually continue for the entire life of the child, so the divorce decree will have to reflect this continued support and cost of living changes.
When choosing a qualified lawyer for your “Special Needs” Divorce, it is important that the lawyer is familiar with what is involved with this type of divorce and understands the importance of tailoring a custom decree that will fit the best interest of the child and family situation for the duration of the child’s existence. It won’t be easy, but if the parents will work together, it can be achievable!