Today, 25% of households in the United States have a member with special needs. An estimated eight percent of children in the United States under the age of 15 have some type of disability or special need. Caring for a child with special needs often requires thoughtful planning, specialized care, and often, extraordinary expenses. In fact, Autism Speaks estimates the cost of caring for a person on the autism spectrum through the course of his or her lifetime to be $2.3 million.
Determining what is best for a child during a divorce can be a complex issue. Parents of children with special needs will need to be especially mindful of transitions, routines, healthcare, schooling, and long-term expenses. The child’s best interests should always come first and take into account the child’s relationship with his or her parents and the ability of the parents to meet the child’s needs.
To better understand how divorce is different for the special needs child, we’ll review some common considerations and discuss how to best navigate this transitional period.
Child support guidelines do not factor in the extensive costs of a raising a child with special needs or disabilities. Children with special needs often need medical treatments, counseling, specialized therapies, medications, unique diets, and special schooling and tuition as part of their care. Parents may also need to purchase specialty equipment, clothing, and food for their child. Child support guidelines will not even remotely cover the actual needs of a special needs child.
If a special needs child has predictable and recurring expenses, most courts will require that these items be added to the child support award. Courts will need to consider the cost of the child’s overall care, including healthcare costs and coverage, and may adjust the amount and duration of child support as needed.
The traditional approach to schedules, access, and visitation arrangements may not be appropriate for a child with special needs. While alternating weekends and scheduling short visits may be the norm, such transitions are not always in the best interests of special needs children. These arrangements require frequent adjustments and transitions, disrupting routines which provide a special needs child with security.
In the case of divorce for the special needs child, it is often best to avoid frequent schedule changes. Instead, parents may schedule large blocks of time such as school breaks, holidays, and summer vacations. Doing so gives the parents and the child time to prepare for the transition and enjoy more concentrated one-on-one time together.
Special consideration will need to be given to the use of child care providers. A sudden “parent’s night out” and an unfamiliar babysitter may cause unneeded stress. Child care providers should be approved by both parents and efforts must also be made to prevent all avoidable disruptions.
When considering child support and the division of marital assets, both parents should consider what type of expenses the special needs child will have in the future. Many children with special needs may never move beyond their parent’s “sphere of influence.” While child support guidelines take into account raising a child into adulthood, parents of children with special needs often need to consider long-term care and child support that will continue indefinitely. This requires extensive planning. These permanent expenses may include a live-in caretaker, residential facility, or adult day care services. It is also important that parents determine and plan for who will care for the child after their deaths. Parents may need to set up trusts or apply for government benefits.
It isn’t uncommon for parents to have different priorities regarding child care. These differences are often exacerbated during a divorce. Parents may disagree over which expenses are necessary and the priority of those necessary expenses. However, for the best interests of the special needs child, priorities must not only be determined, but agreed upon and strictly followed. Doing so requires effective communication. A legal professional may serve as a mediator for parents who cannot come to a mutual agreement regarding these matters independently.
Our legal team at Melone Hatley has significant experience in the area of family law and divorce. We will work to ensure that your child’s best interests are safeguarded and help you reach an equitable resolution. To discuss your specific situation, contact us today for a case evaluation.