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Divorce When You’re a Parent of a Special-Needs Child

divorce with special needs children

Being the parent of a child with special needs brings with it a blend of challenges and joys. This intense experience can make sustaining a marriage even more challenging, and studies have shown that couples raising a special-needs child tend to divorce at a higher rate than do other couples. Due to the complexity and expense of raising a child with physical or developmental special needs, parents of such children have more to consider when divorcing than do parents of nondisabled children. Below are a few issues to discuss with your attorney when going through a divorce as a parent of a special needs child.

Parents Need to Agree

If there was ever a need for cooperation during a divorce, it is when there is a special needs child involved. There are so many areas that need to be negotiated for the sake of the child, for example, who will the child live with?  This must be determined, and it is in the child’s best interest for the most able person to step into that role. But the other parent is not off the hook.

How much support can the non-custodial parent provide? What will the visitation be for the non-custodial parent?

You will need to be certain that the custodial parent and the non-custodial parent are able and equipped to handle these special considerations. If only one parent is able, will the other parent be willing to provide financially to cover their absence in the form of additional child support?


How many areas do you both agree on? Are you on the same page about the potential for this child now and in the future? That will help in mapping out a plan for their care.

Parents need to agree on:

  • Parenting Time – Which parent is best equipped to have the majority of the parenting time and why? For the non-custodial parent, special attention should be given to all parenting arrangements including responsibilities and financing.
  • Therapy – How much will the child need for her lifetime and what will that cost? The cost of that therapy, even if it lasts for a lifetime, needs to be figured into the divorce agreement. A lifecare plan may help provide actual numbers that are essential to planning for the future.
  • Medical Care – Besides therapy, medical care may include doctor visits, specialized alternative medicine appointments, the cost of medication, and the frequency of medical care. Is there any specialized equipment your child needs? Vitamins, nutritional needs, complementary and alternative medical care may be part of her regimen.
  • Child Care – If you child is severely disabled, she may need trained supervision that not everyone can provide. If you are not able to stay home, how are those needs met? If your child needs care, but has milder maladies, supervision should only be entrusted to those with training.
  • Transitioning to Adulthood – Estate planning may be involved in mapping out your child’s transition into adulthood. Not only the parent’s assets, but there may be government or private agency funds available to be added to child support. A financial adviser can be employed to create a special needs trust (if needed) for the child once the parents understand the scope and breadth of the child’s needs after turning 18.

Ensure that child support takes public benefits into consideration

Florida courts calculate child support payments according to the guidelines laid out in the Florida Statutes, section 61.30. Courts are usually required to award an amount within 5% of the result of the formula contained in that law. However, when a child has extraordinary medical or educational expenses, or extraordinary costs associated with caring for a special needs child, courts can go beyond the amounts prescribed by the formula. If you plan to be the primary caretaker of your child, take the time to create a thorough budget that accounts for all the medical, therapeutic, and household expenses involved in raising your child. Your attorney can help you provide documentation of these expenses to present to the court in support of your request.

As a result of his or her disability, your child may be entitled currently, or will be entitled in the near future, to public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income. Ensure that a calculation of child support takes these benefits into account, so that the child is not determined to be ineligible for these benefits due to the amount of child support received.

Consider creating a trust for your child’s care going forward

Most parents do not have to plan to support their children financially throughout their lifetimes. However, if you have a child with special needs, you and your co-parent will need to determine where your child will live, who will provide their care, and the source of funds for this care as they age. These discussions are important to have prior to finalizing a divorce, as it may be necessary to set aside funds at the time of the division of property for this future care. Many parents decide to create a special needs trust, which enables the child to receive additional financial support while also remaining eligible for public benefits.

Create a plan for staying in close communication

Parents of all children must remain in contact after divorce, in order to exchange custody, coordinate holiday schedules, and discuss their children’s education. Parents of special-needs children have an even greater need to keep in touch, as these children often have more frequent appointments with doctors and therapists, requiring parents to coordinate their schedules more carefully. If frequent direct communication with your co-parent seems destined to devolve into conflict, consider using electronic methods, such as the program Our Family Wizard, or a shared Google Calendar, to coordinate schedules.

If you are facing divorce in Florida, seek legal help from a professional who will handle your case with compassion, dedication, and thorough knowledge of the law by contacting the Pensacola family law attorney Crystal Collins Spencer for a consultation, at 850-912-8080, or at our offices in Sandestin (850-424-6683) or Fort Walton Beach (850-200-4652).

316 S. Baylen Street, Suite 520
Pensacola, FL 32502
Telephone: 850.912.8080 Fax: 850.912.8028

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