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How to Share Custody of a Child with Special Needs

Additional factors that parents of children with special needs must consider to ensure stable care in the future. 

Parenting plan factors for children with disabilities

parenting plan is a written agreement that maps out how you and your child’s other parent will care for 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.

Determining how you will make decisions for your children in the future is essential, especially regarding issues like medical care and schooling. If one of your children has special needs, there are additional items you need to include in your parenting plan to ensure your child has stable care in the future.

one parent may not have the time or resources to provide the level of care necessary for the child

Who gets custody?

One parent may already be playing the role of primary caregiver, which could be a factor in determining custody. Conversely, one parent may not have the time or resources to provide the level of care necessary for the child. For families with special needs children, it is more common 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, a child's care may include:

• Specialized medical equipment

• More frequent visits to health care providers

• Prescription medications

• Supplemental nutritional needs

Although this list of factors is not exhaustive, these essential elements must be considered when deciding the best living arrangement for the child. If both parents can provide care for the child, these questions may help determine who has sole physical custody:

• How will the child get to and from appointments?

• Is one home more accessible or safe for the child than the other?

• What is each home's proximity to the child’s health care professionals?

Many special needs children thrive on routines, so shared custody or visitation schedules become more complicated

What should the custody schedule look like?

Many children with special needs thrive on routines, so implementing a plan that includes shared custody or visitation schedules may become more complicated. If frequent changes in routine are too disruptive for a special needs child, parents may need to consider alternative arrangements if they still want to share custody. One example would involve parents splitting custody between the school year and the summer.

Parents must address the shared responsibilities, requirements, and costs if a child requires overnight care. One parent may have to agree to limit the frequency of their visits to minimize disruptions to the schedule and the child’s physical or mental well-being.

How do we handle custody exchanges?

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. If both parents wish to have matching equipment in both homes, they must be able to address and manage the related financial costs.

What financial responsibilities are involved?

A child with special needs likely has increased costs for medical care, services, equipment, nutrition, medications, and additional caregivers. When determining child support calculations, judges will typically address the extra expenses of caring for a child with special needs.

Managing the care of a special needs child may be a full-time job for the custodial parent, so that needs to be considered in calculating spousal support. Alternatively, if neither parent wants to be involved in caring for their child’s needs, both must assess what help is required. Some may secure assistance from family members or hire third parties. In either case, parents must consider how costs will be financed if someone else provides care.

Child support payments only last until a child is 18 or 21, but children with special needs may require financial support throughout their lives. Parents must also consider how child support payments interact with government benefits programs like Social Security.

How is medical care arranged?

Support provisions in a parenting plan for a child with special needs must 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 in an emergency.

Important decisions by the co-parents may need to be made on a more frequent basis when it comes to a special needs child

How should we communicate?

Important decisions should be made and reviewed openly regarding children with special needs. Parents must agree on how they expect to communicate and how often they must check in with each other.

The frequency of communication is fundamental, especially if parents share legal or physical custody of their child. Regular reviews and updates to the parenting plan may need to be made as often as every year or whenever there's 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. Whether your child has dietary restrictions, noise sensitivities, or issues with communication, any special needs your child has must be discussed and detailed in your parenting plan. You and your co-parent must both commit to addressing everything your child needs and how you must work together to meet those needs.

Co-parenting a child with special needs can be challenging, and developing a comprehensive parenting plan may be much more complicated than many parents anticipate. The more specific you can be when assigning roles and responsibilities in your parenting plan, the better the outcome will be for everyone.

If you and your child's other parent struggle to communicate, whether it's during the development or implementation of the parenting plan, consider having structured discussions with a mediator to reach an outcome amicably. Families with special needs children can significantly benefit from working with a mediator experienced with similar situations and circumstances.


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