Sometimes, even after a lot of work, a marriage ends.
This is an emotional time for parents who are trying to separate the parts of their lives that have been woven together. And it’s even more complicated for parents of children with disabilities or special health-care needs.
There’s so much to consider:
Who will make medical or educational decisions for your child?
Is it safe for them to switch between houses?
How are you going to make sure your child’s medical or therapy costs are covered?
There are a lot of resources out there to help walk you through this stressful time. We have collected some of those below. There are also people like lawyers, counselors, and mediators who can help if you and your spouse don’t see eye-to-eye on your divorce plan, including on your child’s care and treatment.
We want you to know that other parents have been where you are – and have come through it.
This page goes over some important ideas to think about and plan for during a divorce as a parent of a child with a disability or special health-care needs.
When any parents get divorced, they need to have a legal agreement that clearly spells out what they are doing with child custody and money.
When you have a child with a disability or special health-care needs, there are extra things to think about when you set up these agreements. You want to be sure that your child’s needs are still being met and that you, as caregivers, still have support. This affects almost every divorce-related decision.
Here are some areas that need special attention.
Child support is the amount of money that one parent pays to the other to support the care of a child.
Here are some unique things to include in a child support agreement if you are a parent of a child with a disability or special health-care needs:
In a standard agreement, child support and custody end when a child is age 18 or after college. But your child might need financial support for their whole life, so plans for child support should consider your child’s longer-term needs. Even if you don’t think your child will need support into adulthood, child support plans should cover the transition to adulthood. Plans about health insurance and paying for school, medical care, and recreational activities should also cover the transition to adulthood.
Standard child support rates don’t include the extra expenses of having a child with a disability or special health-care needs, such as therapy, medication, or special equipment. Remember to include these in your agreement.
Custody agreements talk about where the child will live and who will make decisions about their medical care, finances, and education.
Here are ideas that you might want to cover in your custody agreement:
Your child might not be able to stay overnight at different houses or switch between them on a weekly basis. The American Bar Association recommends longer stays with each parent and not switching during the school year.
Who will make decisions about medical care and school? And how? For example, who will go to Admissions, Review and Dismissal (ARD) or Section 504 meetings? Who makes decisions about a new therapy or medication? What happens if your child gets a new diagnosis?
Who will make medical and other decisions when your child turns 18 years old? Will you consider the possibility of guardianship?
If one of you remarries, how much will the new spouse be involved in your child’s care or decisions about them?
What happens if one of you moves out of the area and can’t be part of daily care?
What happens if one of you decides that you can no longer take care of your child? Or if one of you is no longer able to take care of your child?
A parenting plan has details on your child’s daily care and how you as parents are going to work together. The more detailed you can get, the easier it will be to give your child consistent care even after the divorce is final.
Here’s what might go in a parenting plan:
A detailed list of your child’s daily routine and medical needs.
Which therapies they go to each week and where they will take place.
Information on their medical equipment, devices, and medications.
If you and your spouse can’t agree on your child’s care and treatment, you can get outside help to make a plan from a counselor or mediator. A court can also assign a lawyer who represents your child to help make a parenting plan that is in your child’s best interest. They may also assign a co-parenting counselor to help make sure you are both following the same plan of care.
Spousal support is sometimes part of the financial section of a divorce agreement in Texas. It is the amount of money that one spouse will pay to the other spouse for basic minimum living expenses. There are certain rules about getting spousal support. It’s based on your situation, minimum needs, how much money each spouse earns, and if the parent caring for a child with a disability or special health-care needs can work enough to support themselves. It’s important to keep track of what your real monthly living expenses will be after the divorce so that you can prove why you need spousal support.
Here are some things that should be considered when setting up spousal support for parents of children with disabilities or special health-care needs:
Managing your child’s care might be a full-time job. If one of you has custody most of the time, that parent might not have time to work full time too. They might not be able to make as much money as they would otherwise.
Respite care is important for the parent who will have the child most of the time. The spousal support rates should include enough money to pay for respite care when needed.
If you aren’t able to get spousal support, you can try to get more child support to cover these costs and support your family.
When you are getting divorced, it’s important to know exactly what it takes to care for your child. Here are some documents that you can bring with you to the court or a mediation meeting to help with your agreements:
Your child’s school records.
Your child’s care notebook.
A list of your child’s monthly medical and related expenses, including medications, caretakers, therapies, copays, and more.
The number of hours that you (or your spouse) spend taking care of your child. This includes direct care, making and going to doctor or therapy appointments, managing caregivers, going to school meetings, and more.
As part of your divorce, here are 3 ways to make sure your child’s finances are protected:
Set up a special needs trust. Have child support payments go directly into this trust so that they do not count as income for your child. The parent who has custody can then take this money out of the trust as needed.
You and your spouse can get life insurance policies that cover your parts of the cost of taking care of your child if one of you dies. These should pay into the special needs trust too.
Change any 401(k) or IRA plans to pay into your child’s special needs trust, and make separate wills that also pay into that trust.
Helping Your Child Through the Divorce
Divorce isn’t easy for a child. Even if you do everything you can to meet their needs, they still have to deal with big changes. Children with disabilities or special health-care needs often have a harder time adjusting. Some of the symptoms of their disability might get more severe. Their behaviors might get more challenging. Maybe it seems like they’re having trouble with skills they already built. This is all a normal part of dealing with stress and change.
Here are some ideas on how to keep your child’s needs front and center during the difficult process of a divorce:
Keep your child’s routine as consistent as possible. The same caregivers, the same bedtime, and the same mealtimes are very comforting.
Consider extra therapies or counseling for your child.
See our page on major life events for ideas on how to talk to your child about what’s happening.
Try to keep your anger or disagreements away from your child as much as you can. DivorceNet has 30 tips for divorcing parents to make things easier on children. They also have an article on positive parenting through divorce with ways to work through disagreements without impacting your child.
Here are a few general tips to help you get through the divorce process:
Find a divorce lawyer who has experience working with families of children with disabilities or special health-care needs. You can search online for “divorce lawyers in Texas for children with disabilities” or connect with other parents to get recommendations.
You don’t always have to go through the courts to get a divorce. If you and your spouse mostly agree on your divorce, you can get a collaborative divorce or go through mediation. See our video on collaborative divorce to learn more.
Getting divorced is usually a hard and emotional process for everyone involved, but by keeping your child’s needs in mind through the process, you can find a plan that will work to keep them happy and healthy in the many years after the divorce is final.