Not all divorces are alike. Particularly, divorces involving spouses who have a special needs child will have specific considerations that should be addressed during the divorce process. Some key issues that need to be considered during a divorce proceeding in regard to a special needs child include the following:
1. Physical Custody
In California, the courts award custody based on what is in the best interest of the child. However, one consideration is that the "cookie cutter" parenting plan for a typical child will likely not work for a child with special needs. Special needs children, such as children with autism, often have difficulty with transitions because they are not comfortable with changes in environment. In addition, a special needs child may not understand the concept of time like a typical child would. The goal should be to design a parenting schedule that prioritizes the child's unique medical, physical and mental needs.
2. Legal Custody
Legal custody is about which parent will make the decisions with regard to the child's health, education and welfare. In the case of a special needs child, it is very important that the parents advocate in unison with regard to matters involving the child's placement, services and therapies. Special needs children typically have a team consisting of doctors, therapists, school personnel and childcare providers. If the parents are unable to work together with the team to make these decisions, then the court should be requested to decide which parent should be the one to have such decision making authority.
3. Child Support
When litigating your divorce case, it is important to educate the judge as to the unique requirements of a special needs child. You may want to request that the court consider unique un-reimbursed expenses that relate to caring for a special needs child. Although the Court uses a formula to calculate child support, that amount may be adjusted for cases in which the children have special medical or other needs that require child support to be greater than the formula amount. The Court may consider a wide range of add-on expenses such as various therapies, special schools, medication, which the special needs child require to facilitate his or her progression. Another consideration to keep in mind is that child support may even extend beyond age 18 in certain circumstances.
4. Medical Insurance/Life Insurance
Families with a special needs child typically spend thousands of dollars each year in uninsured medical expenses. Consequently, it is important that divorcing parents address the topic of medical expenses (including health insurance premiums and uninsured medical expenses). Also, in some states, such as California, the court may order a parent to secure his/her child support obligation through a life insurance policy.