Parenting Plan Factors for Children with Disabilities
A parenting plan is a written agreement that maps out how you and your child’s other parent will take care of and raise your children after a separation or divorce. It includes everything from where your child lives and how to schedule visitations and vacations to how you will share financial responsibilities. How you will make decisions on behalf of your children in the future is essential, especially on issues such as medical care and schooling.
If one of your children has special needs, there are additional items you need to plan to ensure your child has stable care in the future.
Who Gets Custody?
One parent may already be playing the role of primary caregiver, which could be a factor in determining custody. Or, one parent may not have the time or resources to provide the level of care necessary for the child. It is more common in situations with special needs children that sole physical custody is considered for one of these reasons.
A special needs child often requires an additional level of care. Depending on the type of disability, this can take several forms:
• Specialized medical equipment
• More frequent visits to physicians or other mental healthcare providers
• Prescription medications
• Supplemental nutritional needs
Other Medical Concerns for Kids with Special Needs
• How will the child get to and from appointments?
• Which household has the medical equipment necessary to ensure the child is safe?
• What is the proximity of the home to the child’s healthcare professionals?
All these factors need to be taken into consideration when considering the best living arrangement for the child.
Daily Time Schedules
Many children living with special needs thrive on routines, so shared custody or visitation schedules become more complicated. If frequent changes in routine are too disruptive for a special needs child, but parents still want to share custody, they may need to consider alternative arrangements. Perhaps the child spends a more extended period with each parent, such as the school year living with one parent and the summers living with the other.
If a child requires overnight care, the parents will need to address the shared responsibilities and cost of overnight care. One parent may have to agree to limit the frequency of their visits to minimize disruptions for the sake of the child’s physical or mental well-being.
Drop Off and Pick Up Schedules
In addition to transporting the child between households, parents may also need to consider the transportation of specialized equipment, such as monitoring devices and medications, between houses. Or, they will need to address the financial costs of making sure both homes are equipped with these items.
Child support charts in most states do not address the extra expenses of caring for a child with special needs. A child with special needs likely has increased costs for medical care, services, equipment, nutrition, medications, and respite time for caregivers.
Managing the care of a special needs child may be a full-time job for the custodial parent, so that needs to be taken into consideration for spousal support. Alternatively, if neither parent wants to be involved child’s care, assistance needs to be secured from family members or hired third parties. What help is required, and how will costs be financed?
Child support only lasts until a child is age 18 or 21, but children with special needs may have financial support needs that continue throughout their lives. Parents also must consider how child support payments interact with government benefits programs like Social Security or Medicaid.
Support provisions in a parenting plan for a child with special needs will need to address the cost and responsibility of additional medical care. They will also need to decide how important decisions will be made on behalf of the child if there is a change in the child’s treatment or prognosis. It is crucial to spell out decision-making procedures to follow if there is an emergency.
Important decisions by the co-parents may need to be made on a more frequent basis when it comes to children.
• How are parents going to communicate about these issues?
• How frequently?
The frequency of their communication is fundamental, especially if the parents share legal custody of the child. Regular reviews and updates to the parenting plan may need to be made, as often as every 12 months or whenever there is a significant change in the child’s treatment or prognosis.
General Guidelines and Rules
The daily childcare routine of a child with special needs may be more complex. The child may require a special diet and medications. To better manage the child's behavior, choose environments free from a lot of noise or stimulus. The child may be nonverbal, so both parents need to know how to communicate with the child. All these items will need to be carefully discussed and detailed in the parenting plan.
Co-parenting a child with special needs is challenging, and the development of a parenting plan much more complicated. The more specific you can be in assigning roles and responsibilities in your parenting plan, the better the outcome will be for everyone.