QUESTION: “What are the unique factors that must be accounted for when negotiating a divorce agreement where there is a special needs child?” 

One in five families American households includes a child with special needs. This means that the child has a physical, mental, developmental or emotional condition that requires additional medical care, mental health care, counseling, therapy or educational services.

These families face unique stresses. In particular, parents often focus on the child and lose focus of their relationship. This can lead to divorce.

When the parents of a special needs child divorce, both the present and the future needs of the child must be taken into consideration. Traditional methods of determining child custody, child support and division of assets may be inadequate.

family law

Here are five questions that should be considered during the divorce:

1. What is the best custody arrangement for the child? A common custody arrangement in Pennsylvania is to have the child spend weekdays with one parent and weekends with the other. For some special needs children, changes in routine are very distressing. Other children may need large amounts of medical equipment or specialized transportation. Parents will need to arrange visitation and custody to accommodate the needs of the child.

2. Who will care for the child? Caring for a special needs child is often a full time obligation. The amount of time needed to take a special needs child to his or her medical appointments and therapy can prevent a parent from being able to hold a full-time job. The divorcing parties must take child care responsibilities into consideration. Who will provide the day to day care of the child? Will the primary care giver receive spousal support? Who will care for the child when the primary caregiver needs a break or has another appointment? If there are other children, who will make sure that their needs are also met?

3. Who will provide for the child’s healthcare needs? A disabled child may have significant medical needs, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, equipment and medications. Parents must have a plan to cover the child’s medical needs. How will the cost of the child’s healthcare be covered? Which parent will provide insurance for the child after the divorce? Who will pay for treatments and equipment that are not covered by the insurance? Who will cover the cost of transportation to medical appointments?

4. Who will provide for the child’s financial needs? Does your child need special schooling? Adaptive activities? Special clothing? The Pennsylvania child support agreement must consider all the needs of your child.

5. Who will provide for the child’s financial needs? Will your child outgrow the disability or will he always need care? Who will care for your child when he is an adult? Will he be able to stay with a parent or will he need adaptive housing? If he stays with a parent, who will care for the child if the primary caregiver becomes sick or disabled? If he enters a residential program, who will pay for the program? Who will be responsible for the adult child after the parents are deceased? Parents may want to consider creating a special needs trust. Before coming up with a plan, gather any paperwork related to your child’s condition. This includes hospital reports, specialist evaluations, medical bills, and individual education plans (IEPs). You may also want to prepare a written description of a typical week. Describe any special care your child receives as well as any routine medical appointments or therapy sessions. This will help your divorce lawyer estimate the true cost of caring for your special needs child.

Costs Associated With Raising a Special Needs Child

Many families find that it is hard to make ends meet after a divorce. It is even harder when the family includes a special needs child.  Like all children, a child with special needs requires a home, nutritious food, clothing, schooling and basic medical care. But, many special needs children have needs that go beyond those of typical children. The additional costs associated with raising a special needs child may include:

  • Hospitalization
  • Frequent doctor’s visits
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Psychological counseling
  • Psychiatric treatment
  • Medication
  • Medical equipment
  • Mobility devices such as wheelchairs
  • Adaptive modifications to the family home or vehicle
  • Special diets
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Special education
  • In-home care
  • Respite care
  • Adaptive transportation
  • Adaptive extra-curricular activities

Court-ordered child support can help provide food, clothing, medical care and education for a child after a divorce. However, the formulas that are used to calculate Pennsylvania child support are based on the cost of raising a healthy child, not a special needs child. A typical child support award is inadequate when a child has ongoing medical and educational needs.

Children with special needs are entitled to additional support. The divorce attorney at Petrelli Previtera will work with you to make sure that your child support agreement covers the needs of your child. This may include the cost of special medical equipment, therapy, summer camps, special needs schooling and adaptation of your home or vehicle.

Child support payments are usually made until the child turns 18 or until the child finishes his schooling. A special needs child may require care throughout adulthood. Our attorneys can help you make arrangements for your child’s on-going support and protection. To learn more, please call Petrelli Previtera at 866-465-5395.