When a marriage is dissolved, it can take a major toll on parents and their children. However, when there is a special needs child involved there are additional issues that need to be addressed. Parents must be willing to work collaboratively on these issues so both short term and long term needs of the special needs child can be met. Minnesota family law includes arrangements for children who may need specialized care into adulthood. The provisions for child custody and child support in a final decree of divorce must take the child’s ongoing care into account. A family lawyer with experience in dispute resolution procedures like Collaborative law and mediation can help you work out an agreement that will provide for everyone’s needs to the greatest extent possible.

What Are “Special Needs”?

In the context of a divorce, “special needs” include a wide range of conditions that cause someone to need additional care and attention. This may include physical injuries or impairments, cognitive impairments, psychiatric issues, and illnesses that require regular medical monitoring.

How Do a Child’s Special Needs Affect Child Custody and Child Support?

Any orders dealing with child custody or child support in a Minnesota divorce must be in the “best interests of the child.” The Minnesota Legislature amended state law several years ago to revise the list of factors courts must consider when determining whether a custody agreement is in a child’s best interests. Courts must specifically consider “any special medical, mental health, or educational needs that…may require special parenting arrangements or access to recommended services.” An order for child custody and support for a special needs child must include plans for medical treatment, services, equipment, and other matters.

Parenting a special needs child can be a full-time job. Provisions for child custody and child support may take this into account.

Issues Presented by a Special Needs Child

Parents in any divorce involving children will need to plan for how their children’s needs will change over time as they grow up. A divorce with a special needs child may need to address many additional issues, including the following:

  • Taking the child to frequent medical appointments or therapy sessions
  • Managing the child’s medications
  • Providing for the child’s accessibility needs, including obtaining mobility devices and making the parents’ homes accessible by wheelchair or other equipment
  • Transportation between the parents’ homes
  • Dietary needs or restrictions
  • School-related issues, such as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other benefits
  • Providing financial support through a special needs trust or ABLE account
  • Planning for guardianship or other arrangements to meet the child’s needs once they reach adulthood

Effect on Child Support

Minnesota law establishes guidelines for calculating the amount of child support that one parent (the “obligor”) is required to pay to the other parent (the “obligee.”) The amount of support is based on “parental income for determining child support (PICS).” The law states that the parents should split child care costs based on their proportionate share of PICS. It also requires the parents to make arrangements for healthcare coverage for a child.

A Minnesota child support order can take special needs into account in two main ways:

  • Duration: A child support obligation in Minnesota typically ends when a child turns 18, or until they turn 20 if they are still enrolled in high school at that time. A court may extend an obligation past those ages if the child, “by reason of physical or mental condition, is incapable of self-support.”
  • Amount: Minnesota law allows a child support order to deviate from the guideline amount in certain situations, including when a child needs additional support for “extraordinary…physical and emotional condition, and educational needs.”

Effect on Child Custody

A custody order involving a special needs child must give careful attention to each parent’s role and responsibilities towards the child. Visitation schedules must take issues like mobility into account. Provisions regarding decision-making authority must clearly define how the parents should communicate with one another, along with guidelines for dispute resolution procedures in the event that they cannot agree on matters affecting matters like the child’s healthcare or education.

How Can Collaborative Law Procedures Help in a Divorce with a Special Needs Child?

The Collaborative law process can be ideally suited for many families that are going through divorces with special needs children. It is important that both parents and their attorneys think through the best way to preserve services for the child as they emancipate and provide for the needs of the child. Working collaboratively allows the best plan to be created for everyone involved to maximize long-term services and financial resources for the child and family in two homes. The Collaborative team typically includes a mental health professional to help the spouses and children adjust to the reality of divorce. That individual may have experience helping families with special needs children, or they can consult with someone who specializes in guiding special needs families through the divorce process. If you are going through a divorce and have a special needs child, it is important that you are represented by a family law attorney with extensive experience in this area of the law. Louise Livesay is a skilled attorney who is compassionate and down to earth, and she will work hard to effectively address your child's unique needs and make your experience as smooth and seamless as possible.

Family attorney Louise Livesay has helped families in the Twin Cities area resolve disputes involving divorce and other family law matters for over twenty years. She uses Minnesota’s family laws to guide her clients as they transform their relationships and prepare themselves for the next stage of life. If you have questions about Collaborative law or divorce mediation, please contact us today online or at (651) 964-3887.