Authored by: Samantha Tomey, JD
Due to significant stresses on parents of special needs children, statistics show that these couples are more likely to divorce than others. Divorces involving special needs children necessitate greater attention to detail regarding medical and educational decisions, more precise planning for the future, and unique arrangements to accommodate the children. The issues of physical and legal custody, visitation, child support, and public benefits eligibility are especially relevant and these should be arranged with exceptional care.
When drawing up a custody or visitation arrangement, families must take into account that the special needs child may need a higher degree of consistency and routine than other children. Frequent transitions between parents' homes might prove too stressful for the child. Proximity to doctors, therapists and other healthcare professionals is also relevant. Parents must focus on effective communication and collaboration for the child's benefit. Some divorcing couples work with a therapist who can assist them with coordinating shared custody arrangements as well as negotiating challenging situations involving their special needs children.
Because parents often disagree about how to care for, treat, or medicate their special needs child, parents and their attorneys must thoroughly discuss medical decision-making, taking into account the health and safety of the child. Due to the number of therapies and professionals that may be required for special needs children, joint consultation and decision-making authority are also critical issues.
Though child support guidelines do not typically account for the additional expenses associated with special needs children, courts may deviate from standard guidelines until the child turns 21 (in New York State).
Public Benefits Eligibility
Special needs children may be eligible to receive social security disability insurance (SSDI) and social security income (SSI). Therefore, child support payments should be made in a way that protects the child from forfeiting these benefits. Moreover, SSI benefits are tied to Medicaid, and can provide for crucial medical and healthcare services for both the child and the family.
If parents seek legal assistance from the start and keep an open mind to creative problem solving and collaborative efforts, they are more likely to keep their child safe and happy and to have a more amicable co-parenting relationship. Although divorces involving special needs children are undoubtedly more challenging, they can certainly be navigated effectively with a look towards the "big picture", patience, flexibility, and most importantly, the best interests of the child.