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What to Consider When Finalizing a Divorce If You Have a Child With Special Needs

Parents of children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other cognitive and physical impairments know better than anyone about the challenges of caring for a child with special needs. When a marriage ends, concerns about how that care will continue and who will be responsible for which aspects of the child’s life are often the most challenging issues to resolve. If you are getting divorced in Virginia and have a child with special needs, it is vital that you find an attorney who is prepared to help with the current and future needs of your child.

Parenting Orders for Children With Special Needs

In any divorce, the best interests of the child are taken into consideration when custody and visitation orders are approved. Children with special needs are no exception. However, it can be difficult for a judge to determine the child’s best interests without significant input from the caregiving parent as well as other experts. Factors that the court should consider include:

Difficulty of Transitions

How easily can the child transition from one environment to another? This process could be complicated by the need for medical equipment, wheelchair accessibility, and an adapted vehicle. Children with certain cognitive challenges might struggle with frequent changes in their surroundings. It can be prohibitively expensive to provide two of everything a child needs in order to share custody equally between two parents.

Parent Experience

Which parent has provided the most hands-on care throughout the child’s life? There can be a lot to learn about caring for a child with medical and social needs, and it might be too difficult for the inexperienced parent to learn it all in order to share custody.

Special Schools

If the child attends a special school, it might be important for them to continue to live close by to benefit from after-school and summer programs. Moving back and forth between two parents might make access to school too difficult.

Access to Other Caregivers

Are there family members or neighborhood babysitters who provide consistent care? If so, it’s important to let the judge know that moving away from your support system would negatively impact the child.

Presenting a complete picture of the child’s life and daily needs is essential for getting the parenting plan you believe is best for the child. In some extreme cases, a parent might insist on shared custody in order to avoid paying full financial support, even if they are not prepared to provide adequate care.

The Role of Child and Spousal Support

Even if the child remains in the original home with all of their supports in place after the divorce, you will still need to ensure that the child support the non-custodial parent is ordered to pay will cover all of the child’s expenses. These costs could include the following:

  • Insurance co-pays for medical needs such as therapy, equipment, prescriptions, and treatments
  • Upgraded equipment and new adaptive technology as it becomes available
  • Alternative treatments not covered by insurance
  • Childcare expenses
  • Respite care for the custodial parent
  • Educational and recreational opportunities for the child
  • Special dietary needs and nutritional counseling
  • Future financial needs as the child gets older

If the custodial parent is unable to work because they are caring for the child full-time, then a spousal support order will likely be necessary as well. Child support orders for children with special needs do not end when a child turns 18 or graduates from high school. If the child is severely and permanently disabled and will never be able to live independently, then child support should continue for as long as the child resides with the custodial parent.

In addition to a parenting agreement and financial support order, it is important that you have additional legal documents drafted to address issues of guardianship and financial protection in the event that you or your ex dies unexpectedly.

Do You Need to Speak to a Virginia Divorce Attorney?

If you are considering divorce, you need to speak with an experienced Virginia divorce attorney as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Fairfax, Virginia, law office at 703.277.2811 to schedule your free consultation. We help clients throughout Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia and look forward to helping you.

Related Links:

  • How does Virginia enforce child support orders that go unpaid?

  • As a Grandparent, You May Be Able to Seek Visitation

  • When Should You Protect Your Parenting Time?