When parents separate or divorce, the process is tough — on both the adults and the children — but when you add children with special needs into the mix, the transitions can be especially challenging.
For starters, consider the financial support and parenting plan issues that may vary from traditional agreements.
Child support is meant to provide financial support, but it typically ends when emancipation occurs — usually between the ages of 18 and 23, depending on specific circumstances. However, Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines allow for a judge to deviate from the support formulas, based on specific written findings.
If a divorcing couple has a child with special needs, child support determined by the support formulas likely would not cover the actual costs for specialized therapy, equipment, medications, special dietary requirements, schooling, and tuition. Additionally, providing for child support beyond the normal age of emancipation may be deemed appropriate, depending on the circumstances of the child.
And while it may be your goal that your child is eventually able to live on his or her own as an adult, you need to hope for the best, but still have an alternate plan. For children with special needs, you should be anticipating life-long support issues — well into the child’s adulthood and possibly beyond the parents’ lifetimes. Adult children with special needs typically become uninsurable as dependents, so the child will likely need to depend on Medicare for medical expenses.
You should also consider special needs trusts and life insurance when looking at the big picture relating to post-divorce finances. A wise move would be to schedule an appointment with an estate planning attorney, who can provide advice for planning ahead.
Every child and family is different, and it is essential to carefully consider every child’s needs in establishing a parenting plan. Some challenges could include:
• Parents may not agree on how to address the child’s special needs on a daily basis.
• Since children with special needs often require standard routines, shared custody schedules may become unworkable.
• Having two parents with different opinions about healthcare, education, and treatment plans may not be in the best interest of the child.
A complete analysis of the child’s safety, the severity of the diagnosis, parental commitment, and availability of each to pursue the best medical, educational, and therapeutic services is key. Additionally, each parent’s insights and the degree to which he or she is tuned in with the challenges must be assessed.
Which parent should have custody and other parts of a parenting plan may be determined by reviewing some of the following:
• Safety issues — Inconsistency in (or the lack of) supervision, or a parent who has not implemented appropriate home safety modifications can present a higher risk of harm.
• Structure and routine — A parent unable to implement consistent routines, such as meals, bedtime, hygiene, and chores, could create a detrimental environment. The same goes for the parent who does not apply appropriate limits, positive reinforcement, and consequences.
• Acceptance of the child’s needs and condition — Any parent in denial about the child’s special needs could pose a long-term risk to the child.
The following considerations should be made in assessing the parenting plan possibilities:
• Transitions between homes — Schedules with multiple transitions or conflict-ridden parents pose a risk.
• Finances — The parent who is willing and able to pay for special services as recommended, versus an unwilling parent, ought to be reviewed when considering the “best interest of the child” standard.
Once your settlement agreement or divorce decree has been signed off by the court, remember to provide the school, the child’s doctor or therapist, other specialists, and/or the babysitter with copies of the relevant portions of the agreement. The last thing you’ll want to encounter is a teacher unsure about whether to release the child to the correct parent; a doctor uncertain who maintains the right to make the needed medical decisions; or questions from a babysitter about who might be transporting your child to and from school or appointments.
This article was provided by Atty. Irwin M. Pollack