How to Co-Parent your Special Needs Child

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According to the 2019 U.S. Census, approximately 2.6 million U.S. households have at least one child with a disability. Divorce and co-parenting children is difficult enough, but the process becomes even more complicated when your child has special emotional or medical needs. Due to the additional care requirements, special needs children require a more thorough co-parenting plan than non-disabled children. Learn about co-parenting, the additional considerations needed when co-parenting a special needs child, and how to communicate and work with your co-parent for the best interest of your child.

What is Co-Parenting?

Whether you have special needs children or not, co-parenting is a skill that takes time to plan for and incorporate into everyday life. It involves the participation and active role of each parent in their child’s daily life, ensuring all needs are met. This shared responsibility is also a way to maintain a quality relationship between each parent and the child.
However, your first priority should be to always act in the best interests of the child. Everything else needs to remain secondary. The relationship between the parents can strongly impact your children’s emotional and mental well-being, especially those with special needs. To co-parent in a way that is best for your child, you will need to separate your personal relationship with your ex-spouse and instead focus on the one you have with your child.

Understanding Your Child’s Special Needs

child smiling

To co-parent effectively means fully understanding and responding to your child’s unique needs. Together with your ex-spouse or separately, take the time to understand your child’s diagnosis, strengths and weaknesses, and specific learning style. Only then can you create a comprehensive co-parenting plan based on your child’s individualized needs.
For example, transitions, that are sometimes common in custody cases, can be a big challenge for special needs children and families. Frequent back and forth or instability between schedules can cause treatment regressions or increase emotional instability. These cases may require a nesting arrangement where parents move in and out rather than moving the child. If the child is going between homes, the parents may need to provide accommodations or improvements to each location to accommodate the special needs child better. By understanding your child’s special needs, you can develop a plan that will work for them.

Our top-rated legal team can help you on your co-parenting journey. Call today to schedule an appointment.

Establish a Co-Parenting Plan for Your Special Needs Child

Establishing a co-parenting plan for your special needs child starts with knowing how best to care for your child. This plan will outline how you and your ex will parent your child and will need to include the following elements.

Living Arrangements

The living arrangement is one of the most important decisions to make for your special needs child. When determining who will be the primary caregiver, consider each parent’s residential layout, location, who has been the primary caregiver, and other factors that will affect the child’s life.


Creating a consistent routine with specific schedules will be helpful for children with special needs. Establish routines for your child and keep them consistent across each parent’s home and parenting time. Discuss how best to order your child’s day, keeping consistency between living locations.

Medical Equipment

If your special needs child requires certain medical equipment, keep this in mind as you develop your co-parenting plan. It may make sense to primarily care for the child at one home over the other depending on what is needed. You can also consider how difficult it will be to transfer the equipment each time and what it would take to outfit both homes with the necessary medical equipment.


You and your ex-spouse must make important decisions for your child, both daily and over the long term. It will be essential that both parents sit down and discuss what is best for the child. You will need to decide if one parent will make the main decisions, or will you try to do it together?
Your child custody arrangement will often determine some of this for you. However, you can keep an open dialogue on what you want for your child and how to achieve those goals. Some types of decisions to consider include the following.

  • Medical decisions: Determine who will attend most medical and therapy appointments with the child and enable that parent to make the necessary decisions when needed.
  • Educational decisions: Discuss school and event schedules and how to make an education plan.
  • Emergency decisions: Talk about what type of emergencies can arise while the child is in either parent’s care and what decisions one parent can make without the other’s input.


While routine and consistency are key to caregiving for your child, parents of special needs children also need to remain flexible in some instances. For example, you may need to transition to newer medical treatments or technologies at some point. If so, you may require an amendment to your co-parenting plan to accommodate a change.

Lifetime Care

A special needs child may need a lifetime of care. Due to this, long-term planning is required. Will there be family members or other providers to help care for them in the future, or do you need to name a custodian if you both pass away? How can you ensure that any government benefits they receive continue over their lifetime?
For financial support, it may be prudent to set up a special needs trust and also consult with family law attorneys concerning ongoing child support payments. This long-term planning for your special needs child can protect them and also provide you with peace of mind.

The Importance of Communication Between Co-Parents

Following a divorce or split, communicating with your ex can be challenging. However, communication will be essential to maintaining your child’s well-being. Co-parents should put aside personal emotions and focus on their child’s care and safety. That way, they can find a common goal and communicate effectively to achieve that goal.

How to Navigate Difficult Co-Parenting Conversations

husband and wife arguing

When it comes to co-parenting, you must find a way to navigate the difficult conversations necessary for your special needs child to receive needed care. In these conversations, consider you and your ex as a team, like business partners, seeking the same main goal, the best outcome for your child. Listen to each other. Try to understand where the other is coming from on a particular topic. If you disagree, explain why. In other words, make it a discussion. You must be open to each other to find what is best for your child.

Making Decisions Together to Meet Your Child’s Needs

While one parent may have primary child custody of a special needs child and be responsible for making the majority of decisions, making as many of those decisions together as possible will still be beneficial. Areas that will benefit include the following.


The educational decisions you make for your special needs child will be paramount in their future. To make these decisions together, you must think about your child’s disability and what resources are available to them.

If your child qualifies for special education, individualized attention will be given in public schools per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Co-parents will have access to school records and can stay involved. You may also want to consider homeschooling. You and your ex-spouse must also determine if education beyond high school is available, including training programs to prepare your child for some level of independent living.

Health Care

To share in the decision-making for your child’s health care, both parents must understand all aspects of the child’s disability, treatment plan, and future needs. You both may choose to attend doctor’s appointments to stay involved in your child’s health and explore any new developments so you can make better joint decisions.It is also very important to discuss in what instances one parent can make a healthcare decision without the input of the other.

Custody and Visitation

With a special needs child, a normal custody and visitation schedule may not be enough. Parents must consider how to maintain routines, transfer medical equipment, and take other actions when sharing custody. Discuss these issues with your family law attorney to determine and create the primary or joint custody schedule. The courts may also assign a guardian ad litem to help ensure the child’s best interests are protected. Their report will factor into the court’s decision.


You will need to make decisions concerning finances. To start, consider who is better equipped to be the primary caregiver and what expenses you expect to be involved in your child’s care, both in the short and long term. While the court may grant primary physical custody to one parent, financial obligations will fall to both.
Additional financial considerations will also need factoring in, and these can be complex. For example, will there be a need to provide spousal support due to the time required to care for the child? Are child support payments needed for any other children in the household? What is the availability of government support?
For help with financial concerns, work with a special needs lawyer who is familiar with legal custody arrangements, child support guidelines, what programs are available to support your child, and any estate planning measures you can take now.

Tips for Successful Co-Parenting

Successful co-parenting is possible, and below we provide some tips to help. For additional information, please reach out to our Virginia and North Carolina attorneys to assess your particular situation.


Find a way to communicate with each other. Ways to achieve this include agreeing to keep discussions centered on your child and what is best for them and regularly updating each other on any new developments. Commit to meeting or talking over the phone frequently.

Seek Support When You Need It

Caring for your child with special needs can be challenging, so seek support from family members and others such as medical care professionals, tutors, and caregivers. Knowing others can help will benefit both parents and aid the different aspects of the child’s life.

Prioritize Your Child’s Well-Being

When it comes to your co-parenting responsibilities and schedule, prioritize your child’s well-being above all else. Start by determining what type of custody arrangement will be most beneficial and establish routines. Keep communications centered around your child and plan financially for their care.

Take Care of Yourself

While your focus is on raising your special needs child in the best way possible, to do so, you will also need to take care of yourself. Find ways to alleviate stress, such as a yoga class or spending time with friends. Schedule regular doctor’s appointments for yourself and join support groups in your local area.

Remember Your Other Children

If you have other children in your household, find ways to meet their needs as well. Perhaps each parent can schedule one-on-one time. Another option is to plan for family activities involving grandparents and more. Determine what decisions you must make as co-parents and include these in your weekly discussions.

How Can a Virginia Custody Lawyer Help?

attorney shaking hands with a client

Cases involving special needs children require a different perspective for custody, visitation, child support, and property division. Getting an attorney involved upfront means you can handle the issues appropriately from the beginning, which can help alleviate stress for you, your ex-spouse, and your child.
Many custody cases require an expert assessment which takes time to put together. Your lawyer will know how to obtain this assessment and what it will mean for a co-parenting arrangement. In addition, planning a budget for future care will be essential. Your legal team can help with this as well.

Plan to Meet Their Needs Together

Co-parenting a special needs child can be challenging, and establishing a plan where you and your ex-spouse work together will be crucial for their wellbeing. The Melone Hatley, P.C. law firm can help. We proudly serve clients from our Virginia and Charlotte, North Carolina offices. We strive to find solutions for co-parenting situations and will be your partner as you determine what is best for your child. Schedule an appointment today by calling 800-479-8124 or by submitting our contact form.

Charles Hatley

Written By Charles Hatley

Charles Hatley joined the firm in 2020 as the firm’s first Litigation Partner. Charles brings with him an unwavering emphasis on a client-focused practice model.
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