Co-Parenting and Special Needs

Ensuring that divorce doesn't hurt your tyke's well-being.

Parents of children with special needs know that caring for their youngsters involves an often overwhelming and demanding lifelong commitment that can add strain to the parents’ own relationship. Eighty-five percent of parents of kids with special needs get divorced. Divorced or never-married co-parents of a boy or girl with disabilities may face additional and substantial challenges, especially when their kin requires lifelong care and support.

Roughly half of the U.S. has laws that obligate parents to provide financial support for their child until he or she reaches 18 or 21, or until the child graduates from high school. Yet individuals with special needs often require financial support throughout their lives for expenses that include tutoring, private education, medical care, therapy, testing, assessments, vocational training, assisted-living arrangements and supplemental income for basic living expenses when social security disability is not sufficient. Many states have enacted legislation that permits courts to order continued support for individuals who are unable to live independently due to a mental or physical disability.

But how does a divorced custodial parent obtain financial support from the other parent when the child is beyond the state cutoff? Often parents of special needs children do not agree on the severity of the child’s disability or the reality of the child’s need for support. Many times, one parent is far less involved in the child’s life than the other parent, who ultimately shoulders both the caretaking and financial support obligations alone.

One solution may be for parents to set up a trust for the child during the divorce process. A divorce financial planner can help project the cost of the child’s future needs and provide advice as to how to fund and manage the trust. If the parents do not agree, however, the custodial parent may be able to get help through the back door, via spousal support, alimony or maintenance, taking into account the costs of support for the child. Spousal support typically has no set termination point determined by legislation. However, it is intended to provide for the needs of a former spouse only. Still, never-married parents cannot seek such support from their exes through the court system.

Custody is another area where parents of special needs children face additional concerns. Adapting access schedules to best serve the child’s needs over time may require an even greater amount of cooperation and flexibility between parents. Social science research shows that it may be more difficult for a child with special needs to go back and forth between two homes in a joint-custody situation. Some children function better when they keep to a set routine and schedule. Parents of a physically disabled child may also need to ensure that both homes are equipped to meet their child’s needs. Caretakers must assess the particular needs of their child when constructing their parenting plans. They should also be willing and able to adapt their plans accordingly over time as their child grows older.

Joint decision-making, regarding a special needs child’s healthcare and education, also requires more frequent and in-depth communication between co-parents. Simply determining whether or not a child needs special education within the public school system involves parental input and consultation with various professionals. Selecting and working with medical, therapeutic and education professionals can be a time consuming, ongoing task without any clear choices or paths.

Parents may wish to retain a neutral third party, such as a parenting coordinator, to have on standby to help with decision-making and communication. A neutral, who is familiar with the parenting agreement, the family dynamics and needs and the other professionals involved, can often reduce the potential for conflict between parents and resolve dilemmas more efficiently when they do arise.

Divorce can be a time of stress, crisis and conflict. It is important for all parents to keep the best interests of their children at the forefront during this process. It is even more critical for parents of special needs children to emerge from their divorce with the ability to communicate in a healthy and cooperative manner so as to prepare them for a potentially lifelong co-parenting relationship.