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Planning for a special needs child in a divorce settlement

Divorce, even a simple one, can be one of life’s most taxing experiences. If a child is involved, the experience can become even more stressful. And if the child has special needs, the experience may seem to tax the emotional resources of both parents beyond their capacity to endure. Massachusetts parents with a special needs child can survive the experience by giving substantial forethought to the needs of their child.

Most decisions in divorce courts regarding children turn on the concept of “best interests of the child.” Three major questions usually determine the outcome of the court’s calculus. The most important question is with whom will the child live? Second, how must contact will each parent be allowed? Third, by whom will child support be paid, and how must will be paid? Parents are the best judges of the amount necessary to support a special needs child, both as to physical care and medical care. A court will attempt to measure the relative capacity of each parent to support the child and pay any expenses required by the child’s special needs.

Divorcing parents should resist the urge to use these issues — physical custody and child support — as emotional weapons. A special needs child requires extra emotional care, not less. Massachusetts provides a significant number of programs to aid special needs children and their parents. Divorcing parents should take these programs into consideration as they strive to agree on a financial arrangement that will satisfy the needs of both the parents and the child.

The additional expenses associated with a special needs child will affect both the amount of child support and spousal support that is paid. Setting these amounts should be driven by the education, physical and medical needs of the child. The parents must not forget the long term needs of the child; many children require special financial support long after they reach the age of majority.

The advice of an attorney who is knowledgeable about special needs children can be a valuable asset in negotiating a divorce settlement that must accommodate those concerns.