Divorce is more difficult when children are involved. When the children of a divorcing couple have special needs due to diagnosed medical conditions such as autism or cerebral palsy, the child’s needs must be given priority as part of the divorce agreement. The parents must focus on the child’s needs ahead of their own.
The issues of custody, divorce child support, and visitation are generally more complicated to resolve in a divorce involving a special needs child. You’ll need experienced legal guidance. The last thing you want is a divorce settlement that fails to account for your children’s needs, especially if one of your children requires extensive support. An experienced family law attorney at Leigh Daniel Family Law can help you keep your child’s best interests at the forefront throughout the divorce process and handle every aspect of your case with care and compassion.
To learn more about seeking a divorce with a special needs child, contact Leigh Daniel Family Law in Huntsville to discuss your situation and learn how we can help.
Divorces for Couples with Special Needs Children in Huntsville, AL
Raising a special needs child is a 24/7 job that can affect every facet of your life. Even healthy marriages can fracture under the strain of the personal and financial challenges that often arise while parenting a child with special needs. In many cases, special needs children are acutely sensitive to subtle changes in their home environments.
Throughout the divorce process, our team strives to keep the best interests of your family in focus. To that end, we do our best to minimize conflict between divorcing spouses and find fair resolutions when disputes arise.
Our team understands that some children have special needs for medical care, education, and other services that may continue into adulthood. If your child cannot live independently as an adult, you and your ex-spouse may have to continue providing for your child throughout your life. We can help you ensure your child’s present and future needs are well understood and clearly documented so the court can account for the child’s immediate and long-term needs.
Special Consideration for a Divorce with Special Needs Children
Special needs children typically require extensive medical treatment, cognitive or physical therapy, and other types of assistance that can exceed the costs associated with raising other children. To thrive at home, children with special needs may have unique lifestyle and living arrangement requirements. That can make joint custody arrangements more complicated.
There are many special considerations that parents and attorneys must consider during a divorce involving special needs children. At Leigh Daniel Family Law, we are committed to addressing your family’s special needs at each stage of the divorce process, including:
- When we file your divorce papers – We will make sure the family court judge knows that your case involves a special needs child from day one.
- During the discovery process – We will present your child’s records and evidence of each spouse’s contributions to caring for the child.
- When child and spousal support are calculated – We will notify the court that it will need to set aside the standard schedule for child support obligations in Alabama and give special consideration to the impact the child’s special needs have on the custodial parent’s income.
- During the development of your parenting plan – We will advocate for your child’s best interests as you develop a custody and visitation plan to meet their special needs.
- When the divorce agreement is drafted – We will ensure the final divorce agreement is constructed to accommodate every aspect of your family’s needs.
Custody and Visitation Involving Children with Special Needs
During Alabama divorce proceedings, family courts do their best to encourage both parents to remain involved in their children’s upbringing after the divorce. Child custody may be granted to one or both parents based on the court’s decision about what serves the best interests of the child or children they have.
When parents with special needs children file for divorce, child custody issues become even more complex. Courts typically examine several important factors, including the child’s individual needs and the abilities of each parent to handle those needs. It’s usually best for divorcing parents to collaborate as much as possible since parental responsibilities rarely end when special needs children reach legal adulthood.
In some cases, visitation arrangements for children with special needs look very different than they would in other divorce cases. Many special needs children require a certain level of structure and stability in the home, which can be disrupted by constantly shuttling back and forth between two homes.
When developing a parenting plan for a special needs child, that parents must find suitable arrangements that will minimize disruption of the child’s routine. This includes consideration of the child’s ability to travel from one home to the other and the accommodations that exist at each home for the child’s dietary, medical, social, and behavioral needs.
Child Support for Children with Special Needs
In Alabama, child support is calculated based on the income shares model. Under this model, the courts estimate the amount of income that would likely go toward child care if the family remained intact, then splits the costs of child care proportionally between each parent based on their respective levels of income.
When a divorcing couple has a special needs child, the divorce decree may be modified in several ways to accommodate unique child support issues, such as:
- Additional medical expenses – Children with special needs typically require additional medical care and physical therapy, which isn’t always covered by health insurance. The court may need to modify child support arrangements to account for this.
- Special education needs – Some child support modifications may involve special provisions for educational costs, such as specialized schooling or in-home tutoring from parents.
- Eligibility for state and federal benefits – If your child receives government disability benefits such as Supplemental Security Income benefits, you will need to structure the child support payments carefully to prevent the child support payment from compromising your child’s eligibility for government benefits or reducing the amount of benefits.
- Termination of child support – With special needs children, child support obligations may continue into adulthood instead of terminating when the child turns 18.
Eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can provide an important source of income for families of children with special needs. To qualify, the child must have a mental or physical condition that seriously limits their activities, and the condition must be expected to last at least one year or longer. They must also have less than $2,000 in assets.
When most attorneys pursue divorce agreements for divorcing parents who have custody of the child, they usually focus on getting their clients as much money as possible. However, it’s important to understand that this kind of approach can actually jeopardize your child’s eligibility for SSI benefits.
The Social Security Administration counts child support as unearned income, which means every extra dollar you receive in child support payments can decrease the amount of SSI benefits available to your child. A portion of child support payments may be exempted for the purposes of SSI, but only until your child reaches adulthood.
Our attorneys will work with you to determine how child support payments could affect your child’s government benefits and address these issues during your divorce proceedings. We may be able to preserve both your child support payments and government benefits b creating a special needs trust.
What Is a Special Needs Trust?
A special needs trust is designed to protect the assets of a special needs individual who is receiving government assistance. The main advantage of a special needs trust is that it allows special needs persons to retain access to needed funds placed in the trust while maintaining eligibility for government benefits.
Although child support payments can reduce or eliminate benefits such as SSI and Medicaid payments, a divorce order may be written to require the payee to deposit funds into a special needs trust (SNT).
If your child has no immediate need for the money in an SNT, the money can accumulate in the trust and be used in the future to pay for things like clothing, transportation, medical care, housing, and anything else that would benefit your child.
Trusts are a specialized area of law. Our law firm may need to refer you to an estate planning attorney to create a special needs trust for your child as part of the divorce process to protect your child’s eligibility to receive benefits.
Understanding Medicaid Waivers
Medicaid waivers can offer much-needed relief in the care of a special needs child. These waivers provide access to important benefits that parents should consider when making custody child support arrangements during an Alabama divorce.
There are currently four Medicaid waivers open to child applicants in Alabama:
- Intellectual Disabilities Waiver – Children 3 years of age or older are eligible for the waiver, which provides access to things like day habilitation, respite services, crisis intervention, and employment support.
- Living at Home Waiver – Children 3 years of age or older are eligible. A Living at Home Waiver provides access to behavior therapy, skilled nursing, specialized medical equipment, and speech therapy.
- Alabama Community Transition – A community transition waiver provides access to adult daycare, case management, home care, meal deliveries, and medical supplies.
- Elderly and Disabled Waiver –The Disabled Waiver provides access to things like home care, personal care, companion services, and unskilled respite care. Children 3 years of age or older are eligible.
Keep in mind that a waiver is not the same as an entitlement program. A waiver does not necessarily guarantee your special needs child will receive benefits since only a limited number of individuals may participate.
Contact a Huntsville Special Needs Attorney
Many of the issues you will face during your divorce proceedings will depend on your specific circumstances and the particular needs of your children. No matter the case, it’s always best to discuss your case with a divorce and family law attorney with experience handling divorce and custody cases that involve special needs children. We care about our clients and want to make a positive difference in your life if you turn to us for help.
Contact the family law team at Leigh Daniel Family Law to discuss all the ways that we can assist you with a divorce proceeding involving a special needs child.