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Protecting special needs children in divorce

No divorce is pleasant, but a divorce that involves custody and support for a child with special needs can be orders of magnitude more complex and heart wrenching than a divorce without such issues. The key is to begin planning for the child as soon as the divorce becomes more than a mere possibility.

Parents of children with special needs are usually experienced in caring for their child before the idea of a divorce begins to take root, but ensuring adequate support and custody arrangements for such a child during and after the divorce can tax even the most dedicated parent.

Careful planning begins with walking through the child's daily routine. First, the parent must consider the extent to which the child is able to move about unaided. Will the child need aids such as a wheel chair or a walker, and for how long? Then comes access to health care? How frequently must the child meet with health care providers? What are the needs for specialty medical care, in-home services, and necessary equipment?

Most child support charts used by states to determine child support do not allow for the extra costs necessitated by caring for a special needs child, and thus, these costs must be presented to the court in a detailed and comprehensive manner. A reliable estimate of future expenses may require the services of an expert who can enumerate the care the child will require and its probable cost.

Florida, like many other states, requires the divorcing parents to prepare a joint parenting plan for the court's review and approval. Preparing such a plan for a special needs child will obviously be more complex and difficult than preparing such a plan for child without disabilities.

One of the most difficult questions is physical custody, especially if the child needs special equipment to get through the day. Insurance companies do not usually pay for two sets of such equipment, and thus, extreme care should be taken in deciding which parent will have day-to-day custody.

Other divorce issues are often affected by the needs of a special needs child. The custodial parent may wish to increase alimony to allow for the additional expenses of caring for the child. Also, many government financial aid plans have strict income limitations that cannot be waived.

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