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Divorce and Children with Special Needs: What Parents Need To Know

Attorney and founder of Hello Divorce, Erin Levine, offers her best tips.

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As a parent of a child with special needs or disabilities, you understand the day-to-day challenges that come along with caring for your child. Even in a two-parent household, these challenges bring both joy and hardship.

So, what happens when you and your spouse decide to end your marriage? Divorce is hard enough as it is, with or without children, but having a child with special needs adds an extra level of complexity. Will one parent continue to care for the child full time? Will child support need to be increased to account for medication or therapy? What will happen if your child needs to be cared for into adulthood?

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Each family is different, and each child has their own unique needs; however, there are some basic considerations each family should address during divorce. Here we discuss some of the most important decisions you and your spouse will need to make during your divorce when you have a child with a disability or special needs.

How To Tell Your 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, consider sharing the news together with your spouse. This will help reassure your child that both parents will continue to be a part of their life. 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 specific needs and abilities. Understand that it is normal for a child to experience exacerbation of symptoms, but this is almost always temporary.

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 To Include in Your Parenting Plan

When it comes to crafting a parenting plan, the more detail the better. Accounting for any 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.

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Here are a few items you should consider adding to your parenting plan:

Child Support

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 Colorado, the age of emancipation is 19. So, what happens when your child will need to be cared for by either parent beyond the age of 19? Are you just out of luck?

Thankfully, no. Colorado allows the judge to order that child support be continued past 19 years old if the child in question is physically or mentally disabled.

Standard child support calculations rarely meet the short-term and long-term needs of a child with special needs. 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 that there’s only so much money to go around so it’s crucial 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 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 child with special needs, estate planning is paramount to ensure your child can inherit from both parents and preserve any government benefits or resources to which your child may be entitled.

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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, 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 child will continue to be financially supported in the unfortunate event either you or your spouse dies. 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 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 child’s additional needs, 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.

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.

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