Tips for Navigating Divorce When Your Child Has Special Needs
Even in a two-parent household, the challenges of raising a special needs child bring both joy and hardship. Add in the complexity of divorce, and it can feel really overwhelming. My hope is that this resource starts the conversation and planning around how to best take care of yourself and your kids while navigating divorce. I've seen so many families over the years thrive post-breakup once they found their groove and had a chance to heal. Some parents report they feel more refreshed and present now that the stress of trying to fix a broken relationship is off the table.
You may be asking yourself questions like: Does it make sense to share custody? Will child support need to be increased to take into account medical expenses and therapy? What will happen if my child needs extra financial support into adulthood? These considerations are real and important. The more thought you put into them now, the better off your child will fare and the more in control you'll feel moving forward.
"Special needs" is a very broad term and thus, I can't possibly cover every type of disability. Even so, my hope is that you'll find value in these tips regardless of your specific circumstances.
How do you tell your special needs child about the divorce?
Telling any child that their parents' marriage is ending is heart-wrenching and difficult. When your child has special needs this can be even more challenging. When you do tell your child, my hope is that your spouse agrees to tell them with you. This will help your child feel confident that both of you are on the same team when it comes to putting your child first.
Tell your child in a familiar setting, and do your best to keep calm. Kids pick up on your energy, and that can lead to worry and unease.
Finally, consider specific therapy for your child to address their feelings about the divorce and to help them process those feelings in a way that is most beneficial to their needs and abilities. Understand that it is normal for a special needs child to experience an exacerbation of symptoms, but this is almost always temporary. Stay the course. The most important thing we can do is make our kids feel safe and reassure them that the divorce doesn't mean the end of the family; just a reorganization.
What should you include in your parenting plan?
When it comes to crafting a parenting plan, the more detail, the better. Accounting for as many possibilities now can help prevent miscommunications or disagreements down the road. You want to avoid a situation where your child's necessary treatment is delayed due to a disagreement between parents.
Here are a few items you should consider adding to your parenting plan:
- Will one parent continue to care for your special needs child full time?
- What parenting time schedule will best support your special needs child? Standard visitation schedules are often grossly inappropriate for special needs children.
- Will you share medical decision-making authority or will one parent have the final say?
- What will happen if your child needs full-time care into adulthood?
- How will you accommodate and/or pay for additional therapy your child may need such as occupational, language, or sensory assistance?
- How will urgent parenting disputes be resolved? Might a parenting coordinator be helpful to avoid litigation in high-conflict scenarios?
What about child support for a special needs child?
Child support is the periodical payment from one parent to another to provide financial care for the child and generally ends at the "age of emancipation" of the child. In most states, the age of emancipation is 18 or 19. Many states have laws that allow disabled children to continue receiving child support into adulthood. What exactly constitutes "disabled" varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If you are unsure about the law in your state, consider scheduling a legal coaching session with an experienced divorce lawyer.
Related: What is a legal coach?
Standard child support calculations rarely meet the short-term and long-term needs of a special needs child. It is important that you consider all current expenses and the ones that you can anticipate. Make a chart and include categories like equipment, medication, supplements, dietary costs, respite care, modifications to your home environment, and sensory items. The bottom line is, there's only so much money to go around, so it's going to be important to prioritize what is most important (not easy, I know!) Now is a good time, if you haven't already, to maximize every possible benefit your child may be entitled to through grants, government programs, schools, etc.
Do you need estate planning for your special needs child?
If your child has a disability that will affect their ability to support themselves in adulthood, you and your spouse should consider estate planning for your child's future now, during the divorce. Estate planning is a method of planning for the future in the case of incapacitation or death. For parents of a special needs child, estate planning is paramount to ensure your child can inherit from both parents and preserve any government benefits or resources they may be entitled to. If your child will be eligible for government benefits, such as Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you and your spouse should consider establishing a special needs trust. This trust holds your child's assets in a trust, allowing the trustee (manager of the trust) to distribute funds and assets to your child as needed. It also allows gifts and other monetary assets to be given to your child without affecting their eligibility for government benefits.
Perhaps the most important piece of estate planning you and your spouse can put into place now is life insurance. Life insurance will ensure that your special needs child will continue to be financially supported in the unfortunate event either you or your spouse passes away. As difficult as it may be, planning for the unexpected now can help ensure that your child will be cared for into adulthood and beyond.
How will you will get the support you need?
You are a caring and loving parent. And while you necessarily spend your time and resources caring for your special needs child, don't forget to take time for yourself and to get the support you need, particularly during a process as stressful and draining as a divorce. As cliche as it may be, you can't pour from an empty cup.
Finding a support system, through parent groups, counseling, or even just taking a night off to Zoom with friends can make all the difference in helping you get through these tough times. Remember to take care of yourself so you can continue to be an amazing parent. You've got this.