You love your special needs child to the moon and back. None of what you’re going through as a couple is their fault.
Marriage is just hard. And so is divorce.
Still, it is true that the additional stressors associated with having a child with special needs can put tremendous strain on a family—in both marriage and divorce. In fact, studies suggest that the divorce rate is higher among couples with a special needs child.
When you’ve come to the difficult decision that you must end your marriage, there are a number of additional challenges and important considerations particular to a special needs family and the best interests of your child.
Questions of custody, visitation, decision-making power, and support are complex in such cases and can be especially so depending on what type of care your child requires.
Today and Tomorrow
Your parenting plan needs to consider residency, education, diet, medication, medical care, recreation, transportation—everything that’s a part of your daily life.
But in addition to planning and providing for current needs, your divorce agreement must address the long-term reality of your family’s specific situation and anticipate the scope of future scenarios.
Many children with developmental differences have a normal life expectancy; some will require a level of support, care, and guardianship into adulthood. In cases of severe impairment, this may mean a full-time, life-long job for the primary caregiver. You will have to establish not only who that will be, but also who steps in when the custodial parent has an appointment, needs a break, or is unable to provide the necessary care.
There are many intricate financial issues associated with your child’s care when you separate: whose insurance they are on, who pays medical costs not covered by insurance, as well as therapy, programs, medication, adaptive equipment, transportation for doctor appointments, support for the parent who is full-time caregiver, and so forth.
Your divorce settlement can have a serious impact on eligibility for government benefits such as SSI and Medicaid. It’s crucial to work with an attorney who is experienced in the ways alimony and child support awards interact with public benefits, and ideally, to collaborate with a special needs planner.
Health and Happiness
Above all, your arrangements must focus on the well-being of your child.
Divorce is hard on everyone. But for kids with special needs, transitions can be particularly challenging—not only the big adjustment of a parent moving out but any ongoing disruptions in daily life. It’s vital to establish healthy, sustainable routines that provide consistency and stability in situations that can be rockier for special needs families, such as sorting out the logistics of how they will switch between parents/homes for visitation.
In trying times, your ability to keep calm, stay positive, and reduce your child’s stress is key to their adjustment and even their health.
As you will most likely be co-parenting, show that you can communicate and work together.
When it’s time to tell your child, sit down with both parents present, and explain what’s happening gently, concretely, and succinctly. You don’t need to discuss reasons, just assure them that this is a grown-up decision and not their fault. Be open to questions, answer with care, affirm their feelings, and don’t be afraid to acknowledge, in simple terms, that it’s a hard time for you too.
Keep in mind the particular ways your special needs child may process or interpret the situation. Emphasize how much they are loved, unconditionally, by both of you, and fully accepted; that they are cared for deeply and their needs will be met. Focus on the things that will not change.
It’s a good idea to consult with a family law attorney with experience in handling special needs cases and children will disabilities. The attorneys at SFLG can help guide you in the right direction to ensure you and your ex-spouse continue to meet your child’s needs.
By Debra Schoenberg