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Divorcing with a Special Needs Child: What Parents Need to Know

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Divorce is a challenging time for families with special needs children. Big changes are coming, and some may be difficult for children to accept. In addition to the usual concerns that go along with divorce and child custody, there are unique considerations that must be accounted for when special needs children are involved.

1. Determining the Child's Best Interests Will be Challenging

Determining a child's best interests is always a challenge, but certain care needs may make this aspect a little more challenging.

Some things that need to be considered include:

  • With which parent will the child live?
  • How will child support be paid and to whom?
  • How much contact will each parent have with the child?

Along with these basic considerations, parents must also think about:

  • The child's care needs
  • The cost of care

If both parents were equally involved in the raising of the child, a joint custody arrangement may be in the child's best interests. But if one parent served as the primary caregiver, the courts (or parents) may decide that it's in the best interest of the child to live with that parent.

"Some children have special needs that must be attended to and taken into account with regard to child custody orders," says The Muller Firm, Ltd. "Ideally, this happens during divorce proceedings or other court proceedings with regard to unmarried parents."

2. Child Custody and Visitation Arrangements Will be Unique

A typical visitation schedule may not be appropriate for a family with a special needs child. Special needs children often require structure, consistency and reliable routines.

With creating visitation schedules, it's important to consider how the child will travel. Will the other parent pick up the child, or will the child be traveling with other children? Special equipment may need to be transported back and forth, so this needs to be taken into consideration as well.

Both parents must also be flexible, as health issues may disrupt visitation schedules from time to time. In some cases, it may be necessary for both parents to live in close proximity to the child's medical care provider.

3. The Parenting Plan Should be Very Detailed

Parenting plans are an important part of any divorce. In some cases, one ex-spouse may not be aware of the extent of care provided to a special needs child. The parenting plan should include details regarding the day-to-day care of the child, including:

  • Diet monitoring
  • Behavior management
  • Administering medications
  • Adapting physical surroundings
  • Communicating with a nonverbal child

4. Financial Considerations Must be Made

A child with special needs may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Child support payments and alimony must be structured around the child's benefit eligibility.

Ideally, parents should choose a family law attorney who works with a financial adviser and special needs attorney to reduce the risk of forfeiting the child's benefits. In many cases, loss of SSI also means loss of Medicaid health care coverage. Special consideration must also be given to a parent if he or she is given primary custody of the child and caring for the child is a full-time job.

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