Co-parenting A Special Needs Child
Children can bring out the best and worst in parents, and when that child has special needs, it can be a struggle to address those needs unless the parents are aligned. A change in the family system should not interfere with the care of a child, but in the real world, this can be a challenge that many families face, particularly when that child may have needs that last into adulthood. The way to co-parent a child with special needs doesn’t vary too much from co-parenting any child – try to reach an agreement about issues like communication, education, vacations, and health, and memorialize that agreement in writing. But there are some issues that can arise in the special needs context that require particular attention.
What is the Special Need of the Child?
Not all parents agree with one another – or anyone else – about the needs of their children. “Special Needs” is a very broad spectrum – from mental health diagnoses such as ADHD to physical challenges requiring wheelchairs. Whether or not a child has special needs can be its own dispute, and the disagreement can be even more intense when it comes to specific treatments or interventions. For example, one parent of a hearing-impaired child might want the child to learn ASL and integrate into the deaf community, while the other parent wants to take measures to improve the child’s hearing. Because special needs often require additional measures and expenses, parents can sometimes get caught up in a dispute over the cost. Just like other children, it is in the best interest of the special needs child to try to resolve these issues through an alternative dispute resolution process like collaborative law.
Planning for the Present
Stability is important for all children, but it is particularly important for children with special needs. This means that decisions about physical custody need to be made to minimize the disruption in the life of a special needs child. It is particularly important to create explicit parameters and guidelines in a custodial agreement rather than waiting for the issue to arise later on. While it may be tempting to designate a “tie-breaker” like the child’s physician, this is not enforceable since the legal rights lie with the parents, with the court stepping in if called upon. Instead, the parties should do their best to confer with the experts when negotiating decisions, planning for foreseeable contingencies, and setting up foundations to address future unforeseeable conflicts.
Planning for the Future
When parents of young children go through a change in their relationship like a divorce, it may be uncommon to consider making arrangements for their children past the age of majority. This is not a luxury afforded to parents of special needs children. In addition to reaching agreements about the current care and nurturing of their special needs children, parents need to consider long-term issues, particularly how to pay for the specialized needs. Parents should consider conferring with expert legal counsel in the area of trusts and estates to make sure that financial provisions are made that do not interfere with any potential government benefits for the child.
Parents also need to make decisions about the possible need for a guardian for the child as an adult. If the child has needs that may not reach the level of guardianship, parents still may need to agree about long-term care for the adult child. In these cases, the court does not have jurisdiction over the issue, so it is critical to make these decisions and provisions in a legally binding agreement.
When parents of a special needs child change their relationship to one another, the child will continue to need additional attention and support. Working with trained professionals, a specific arrangement can be reached that permits the child to thrive. If you are considering a change in the arrangements for your special needs child – whether through a divorce or another life transition – contact Reese Law to consult about the best path forward.