Parenting is among the most rewarding parts of an adult’s life. Being able to raise a child, see him/her develop and then see your child mature into adulthood is a tremendous joy. Any of you fellow parents who are reading this blog post are sure to agree with me. That is not to say that parenting does not present its fair share of challenges. Parenting a special needs child presents its own, unique set of challenging circumstances.
If you are considering whether or not to begin a divorce or a child custody case, then you should carefully consider the circumstances of your children before doing so. It is not enough for you to enter into a difficult family law case with only a vague idea of what you want and need to accomplish in your case. Rather, you need to approach your family law case with a high level of intentionality when it comes to goal setting. Allow yourself some time to sit quietly, without distraction, in order to arrive at goals for your case.
I think it is worthwhile to discuss the challenges that special needs parents face during a child custody or divorce case. For anyone who has raised a child, you are well aware that “challenges” may as well be another word for “costs.” Raising kids is not expensive, in and of itself, but it can be depending on the needs of your child. Let’s walk through some of the needs your child may have and then discuss how those needs translate into costs associated with raising your kiddo.
Medical costs for a special needs child
Some kids develop special medical needs at birth while others have needs that develop over the course of their life. Of course, if you are the parent of a special needs child with medical problems this will be the focus of your attention. Whatever the special needs of your child are you have learned what treatment he or she requires on a regular basis as well as what extraordinary care he or she requires during certain seasons of his or her life. Hopefully a great deal of care for your child can be done at home where everyone is most comfortable.
I would recommend coming up with a budget for your child’s medical costs before your divorce or child custody case is set to begin. Remember how we talked about being intentional with your goal setting a moment ago? That intentionality begins here. You need to have a firm grasp of the medical costs that your child is likely to incur over a given period of time. You don’t need an estimate based on educated guesses. Rather, take your child’s past needs and costs and base your projections on what your child has already needed.
Depending on how substantial the future costs associated with your child’s medical needs are, the way you negotiate through a divorce could be impacted. For instance, health insurance will absolutely need to be considered in the divorce. Make sure that your final decree of divorce takes into account which parent is responsible for paying health insurance. Whatever costs go over and above what health insurance covers you all should come up with a plan on how to divide those costs. The reimbursement of costs paid by you or your spouse should be laid out, as well. Typically, parents agree to reimburse one another for costs within thirty days of paying a bill.
Finally, when it comes to medical costs you and your spouse/co-parent need to be aware that decision making associated with medical treatment will likely be split between the two of you. If you believe that you need to be hold the exclusive right to make decisions regarding medical treatment, then you should speak to your attorney about how to attack this goal. How you allocate rights and duties associated with medical care for your child can have a direct relationship on the costs that you all incur over the long run.
Educational costs for a special needs child
The thing about educational costs for your special needs child is that he or she may have increased costs in this area no matter if their impairments are primarily physical or mental. True, when we think of going to school we are primarily concerned with issues like memory, concentration, ability to process information, behavioral problems, etc. However, your child’s physical impairments may make going to school a challenge for him or her from a mobility perspective, as well.
Does your child require accommodations at school like a special work area to be able to use their wheelchair? What about a walker or crutches that allow him or her as much freedom of movement as possible while still allowing a fair amount of stability for walking? While your child’s school likely has many of the onsite accommodations that your child needs for a successful transition into school-life it is probable that there will be out of pocket costs that you need to consider during your child custody or divorce case. How are you going to divide these up between you and your co-parent?
In addition to the physical needs of your child in school, it is possible that your child may require visits to counselors and therapists outside of school. In many cases these costs will be covered by health insurance. It is essential that you verify any professionals that your child is referred to is covered by your insurance. If not, you should request an alternative referral to an in-network provider that your child can see.
Finally, if your child struggles with their studies then you may need to consider hiring a private tutor in the future. Begin by researching the needs of your child and determine whether or not you or your co-parent would be able to offer the help your child needs. You can speak to your child’s teachers and counselors and get their opinions, as well. If you do need to hire a private tutor it is essential that you lay out costs for the tutor in your final orders.
Again- be intentional. How many visits per month should be allowed under the terms of your order? How are those costs going to be divided between you and your co-parent? Who has the final say on whether or not to continue counseling if your child’s condition improves over time? These are the sort of specific questions that you need to find answers for. Do not assume that you and your co-parent can sort these issues out over time. Take precautions when you have the time to do so during your family law case.
Negotiating through your divorce with a special needs child
Now that we have gone over the types of special needs your child may have and how those needs translate into costs for you and your co-parent, we can get into some specifics about how to negotiate through these issues in the context of your divorce. A divorce case allows us to discuss issues involving how to divide up your community estate whereas a child custody case does not involve any shared property between you and your co-parent.
How the community estate is ultimately divided up between you and your co-parent can have significant impacts for your special needs child. Let’s walk through a possible scenario that may sound like something similar to what you and your family are going through in your actual divorce.
You have been a stay at home parent for the past seventeen years since your child was born with a range of special needs that do not allow him to take care of himself on any level. Therefore, you quit your job to tend to his every need. You have a high school education and had thought about starting community college coursework before you got pregnant and gave birth to your son. Your past work experience was as a secretary and administrative assistant.
When you married your husband nearly twenty years ago you worked those jobs in order to help put him through law school. The year that your son was born was also the year your husband graduated from school, passed his Bar exam and then started work as an attorney. Over the years, your husband has developed his practice to the point where he is a successful lawyer in your community. He has been the breadwinner for your family, and you have cared for your home and your son.
This past summer your husband filed for divorce from you. It came as a shock, not only because he is ending your marriage, but because you have not worked in two decades and are concerned about how you are going to house and care for your special needs son. If you were to find yourself in these sort of circumstances what issues should you be aware of as you approach your divorce?
For starters, you need to make sure that you and your child can survive in the years following your divorce. If your son requires you to care for him around the clock, then you should consider what options are available through your health insurance. Is it possible for you to have someone come in to care for your son while you go back to school or go to work? Decide what options are available to you in order so you know how to prepare yourself for a post-divorce life with your son.
Next, you and your attorney need to determine the best way to go about negotiating a division of your community property estate. If you will be charged with taking care of your son after the divorce, then you are likely in a position where you can ask for a disproportionate share of your community estate. This means you would receive more than 50% of the estate in the divorce property division. Since your spouse has a greater ceiling on his ability to earn an income than you do then it makes sense that you should be awarded more of the community estate. You can invest money for your retirement years, for the future care of your child or liquidate an asset if you need an immediate infusion of cash into your bank account.
Another option for you to consider is whether or not spousal maintenance or contractual alimony is possible in lieu of being awarded a disproportionate share of your community estate. Spousal maintenance is available when you have been married to your spouse for more than ten years. In the alternative, you and your spouse can negotiate for contractual alimony no matter how long you have been married. Spousal maintenance lengths are typically determined by how long you have been married so speak to your attorney about what you may be able to negotiate for.
Finally, I would recommend thinking about whether child support is necessary in your case even after your child reaches adulthood. Typically, child support ends when your child either turns eighteen or graduates from high school, whichever occurs later in time. Given the extraordinary needs of your child, however, you may want to negotiate for child support to extend for a period of time beyond his or her eighteenth birthday. Balance your need to request age of majority child support against your ability to negotiate for a disproportionate share of the community estate as well as post-divorce spousal maintenance/contractual alimony.
Questions about the material presented in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week here in our office. These consultations are available in person, over the phone and via video. We also produce unique content about the world of Texas family law here on our blog each day. Thank you for your interest in our law office and I hope you will join us again here tomorrow.