Divorce is painful and emotional under the best of circumstances. A divorce that involves a child with “special needs” can be very complex and mentally stressful. Current issues and future challenges need to be considered that are usually not part of a divorce situation under more “normal” circumstances, especially when a child requires lifelong care and support.
When standard parenting plans, child support guidelines and settlement agreements are used without appropriate consideration being given to unique issues of a special needs case, the child can suffer. The “special needs” should be identified and resolved before your divorce settlement is finalized.
“BEST INTEREST” OF THE SPECIAL NEEDS CHILD
The main goal in a divorce with a child who has “special needs” is that all decisions affecting the child must be in the “best interest of the child.” This issue is often the very reason that the parents are divorcing, being unable to agree on the existence of a disability or to identify the best approach needed for current and future care and support.
AGE OF MAJORITY
An exception to the rule that the parents’ duty to support their child ends at the child’s age of majority occurs when the child is disabled. Many states have adopted the rule that parents have a responsibility to support their adult special needs child when the child is mentally or physically disabled and unable to support himself/herself upon reaching the age of majority. States differ as to whether support for an adult disabled child is determined by the state’s child support guidelines or by the needs of the child and balanced by the parents’ ability to provide support.
Child support guidelines generally function well for typically-developing children but are often inadequate in providing for the many extra expenses a custodial parent incurs with a special needs child. Most standard court financial affidavit forms and child support calculations do not account for any of these expenses, so deviations from the guidelines are usually warranted.
In many situations, a special needs child will require additional medical care beyond what is provided by health insurance. Anticipating, and addressing, the medical needs and costs associated with your child can help prevent future disputes. Consider the following list: deductibles, co-pays, special dietary requirements, home therapy requirements and personal care item supplies. Additional doctors, therapists, hospitalizations, surgeries, medications, supplements and specialized equipment may also be required.
Caregiver training, special clothing, vehicle modifications, cost of non-parent caregiver and travel and lodging expenses for out-of-town treatments need to be considered. Summer camp, school supplies and activities such as dance, karate, horseback lessons, and music classes should be considered.
Special education requirements plus additional cost for independent evaluations, tutors, consultation, advocacy, legal fees and other support services for your child may need to be part of the settlement agreement as your child transitions out of the educational system.
CUSTODIAL PARENT AND EMPLOYMENT
Due to the extra care a special needs child may require, the primary parent may be precluded from obtaining employment, may be underemployed and not be eligible for employer-provided health insurance, pension or 401(k) plan. The same parent might also be passed over for promotions, raises or other career advancements. This will usually continue for the entire life of the child.
The divorce decree should reflect the potential need for spousal support (maintenance) and cost of living amounts (COLA). This would help ensure that the care giving parent would be able to afford all the needs of the household.
A typical visitation schedule, used in most divorces, may not be appropriate for your family. These visitation arrangements usually involve alternating weekends and/or midweek visits, as well as extended school holidays and summer visits.
Special needs children often require more consistency and structured routines. It is sometimes better to minimize frequent adjustments to a new environment, especially during the school year and focus on longer visits with each parent for more concentrated time.
A parenting plan should spell out essential information and instructions about managing behaviors, giving medicines, monitoring consistency of foods, adapting physical surroundings and understanding specific preferences of your non-verbal child.
With the right guidance, decision making process and identification of the special needs and issues, parents can feel more comfortable in knowing that they have made the best possible decisions given their situation, have protected their special needs child and provided for his or her care for the future.
Darlys S. Harmon-Vaught is a divorce mediator and financial analyst located in Louisville, Kentucky. Her goal is to assist divorcing couples in identifying the issues of their divorce and to help them work out settlement agreements that are best for them and their children. Having two advanced degrees in Special Education plus teaching experience, she is uniquely qualified to work with parents and children in addressing the many specific challenges facing these children.
You can contact Darlys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-855-3475. Her website address is www.divorcefinance.info.