Mediation for Parents of Special Needs Children

Special needs children often require overwhelming lifelong commitment that adds strain on a marriage or intimate relationship, many times resulting in divorce or termination of the intimate relationship. Mediation can invaluable to parents of a special needs child—both during and after the divorce/separation process.

The resolution of legal issues, such as custody, child support and/or spousal maintenance, parenting time, and property division, are more complex when special needs children are involved because of uncertainty relating to the nature and cost of the child’s future needs and expenses. And because parents often have differing opinions of the child’s diagnosis and needs which adds opportunity for conflict.

After the divorce is final, on-going joint decision making about the child’s care and education requires frequent and detailed communication between co-parents. It is time consuming to manage interactions with multiple doctors, educators and other specialists who offer varying treatment recommendations with no clear right or wrong choices. On-going and sometimes extraordinary financial needs, continuing past emancipation, further complicate the challenges.

Parenting plans for special needs children should:

  • Be tailored to accommodate the child’s unique needs,
  • Be changeable over time as the child develops,
  • Include a defined processes for making modifications and resolving disputes,
  • Include a provision for consultations with the child’s medical and educational providers, and
  • Include specific information and instructions regarding necessary consistency between parent’s homes regarding managing the child’s behaviors, treatments, medical equipment, diet, environmental needs and/or preferences.

The divorce decree/legal documents for parents of special needs children should:

  • Address anticipated costs for medical care, prescriptions, therapy, testing and assessments, special and/or private education, tutoring, vocational training, equipment, assisted living arrangements and supplemental income,
  • Address public benefits available to the child and how these benefits may be affected by child and/or spousal support or assets held by the child,
  • Consider the diminished capacity for earning income and contributing to retirement funds of a parent who provides primary care-giving (when determining support and property division issues), and
  • Address parental obligations to provide financial support after the child emancipates (varies by State) an as needed establish a special needs trust to protect assets and the child ability to qualify for government benefits.

Mediation provides parents of special needs children a personalized process, privacy and significant financial savings. A mediator can help parties focus on their child’s needs and control destructive behaviors and communication that could be aggravated by the traditional adversarial legal process. Maintaining an on-going relationship with the mediator, who is already familiar with the parenting agreement, the family dynamics and needs, and the other professionals involved can reduce the potential for conflict between parents and resolve conflict more efficiently when it does arise.

It is critically important that parents of special needs children emerge from their divorce/separation with the ability to communicate in an effective manner because their parenting relationship may continue long after the child reaches adulthood. Mediation offers a process which allows parents to establish sustainable communication and, as needed, can provide on-going dispute resolution without on-going court involvement.

The following blog is adapted from attorney, Sherri Donovan’s, article posted on www/Mediate.com in JAN 2013. Read the complete article at: //www.mediate.com/articles/DonovanS1.cfm

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