Getting a Divorce When You Have a Special Needs Child

A low-angle of a family of four out walking their dog. Special needs child in wheelchair is at the front of the group.

Divorce is a difficult process under the best of circumstances. You must deal with a wide range of emotions in addition to all of the legal and practical issues. If you have children, you must help them through a confusing and painful time. A divorce with a special needs child can be far more challenging for both you and your child. The parenting plan must account for the specific issues that affect your child. Custody arrangements and child support for special needs children can be significantly different from other divorce cases, based on each child’s specific situation. An experienced Missouri divorce lawyer can guide you through the process and help you understand your rights and options. The following is a brief overview of divorce and special needs children in Missouri.

What Is a Special Needs Child?

The term “special needs child” has no single definition. The term broadly applies to children with conditions that require additional attention in some form. This may include:

  • Physical injuries or conditions that impair a child’s mobility
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Psychiatric issues
  • Acute, chronic, or terminal illnesses that require close medical monitoring

Parenting a special needs child is often a full-time job, and the cost of a child’s care can be significant. These will almost certainly be factors in divorce cases involving special needs children.

What Issues May Be Present In a Divorce Involving a Special Needs Child?

The specific issues that a special needs child will present in a divorce depend on the child’s condition or conditions. They may include:

  • Frequent doctor appointments, therapy sessions, or counseling
  • Medications
  • Dietary restrictions or needs
  • Accessibility issues, which may include adapting a parent’s new home to allow for a wheelchair or other equipment
  • Difficulties with transporting the child from one parent’s residence to the other for visitation
  • Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and other school-related needs
  • Behavioral concerns
  • Disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), if available
  • Planning for the child’s needs once they reach adulthood, possibly including the need for the appointment of a guardian.
  • Planning for the child's future financial needs through 529 plans, special needs trusts, or ABLE accounts

How Are Child Custody and Child Support Different for a Special Needs Child?

Parents have an obligation to support their children. Generally speaking, this obligation continues until a child is able to support themselves, which usually occurs when a child reaches the age of 18 or graduates high school or college. A special needs child may require support beyond this point. Missouri law requires all orders involving child custody and child support to be in a child’s “best interests.” It allows courts to extend child support and other obligations beyond the time that a special needs child legally becomes an adult.

Child Support for a Special Needs Child

State law identifies several situations in which a parent’s obligation to pay child support ends:

  • The child dies, gets married, enters active military service, or becomes emancipated.
  • The child turns 18 or graduates high school, whichever occurs later, unless the child then enrolls in college or a vocational school.
  • The child turns 21 or graduates from college or vocational training, whichever occurs sooner.

If a child is “physically or mentally incapacitated from supporting himself and insolvent and unmarried,” Missouri law allows a child support obligation to continue past the child’s 18th birthday. It does not specify an endpoint in this situation.

Standard child support orders tend not to reflect the additional costs involved in raising a special needs child, such as medical bills, medication expenses, therapy costs, and the cost of equipment. A child support order for a special needs child should take these extra expenses into account.

Child Custody for a Special Needs Child

Both parties to a divorce must submit a proposed parenting plan shortly after the case begins. Missouri provides a rather detailed list of issues that a parenting plan must cover, including:

  • A visitation schedule, including weekend and weekday visits, holidays, and birthdays, along with details about transportation between the parents’ homes
  • A plan for decision-making regarding education, healthcare, childcare, and communication between the parents
  • A plan for sharing expenses related to the child’s education, healthcare, and other matters

A special needs child might present additional challenges that the parents must address in the parenting plan. Planning for every possible issue that may arise is likely to be impossible. Because of this, parents should also include dispute resolution procedures that they can use if or when disagreements arise in the course of co-parenting their special needs child.

What Is the Best Way to Handle a Divorce with a Special Needs Child?

When a child with special needs is involved in a divorce, visitation, support, child custody, and property division are much more complex to negotiate. Any divorce involving children requires the parents to plan not only how to end their marriage, but also how to work together in the future to co-parent their children. If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, child support, and other matters, they may have to argue their cases in court and let a judge decide for them.

Parents of a special needs child generally know their child better than anyone else. A judge might only have a few hours to learn about the circumstances and needs of the child and the parents before making a decision that could affect the family for years to come. Parents should make every possible effort to find an amicable resolution to their divorce, in order to ensure that the final child custody and support order will work for them and their special needs child. Options like collaborative law and divorce mediation are available to help parents in this kind of situation.

Mark A. Wortman is a family attorney who practices in the greater Kansas City area. He has dedicated his entire practice to representing people in divorces and other family law matters. Please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.