Divorce is a complex and emotional process, especially for parents of children with special needs. For parents of children with special needs, the situation can be particularly overwhelming. These families often face unique challenges and considerations such as education, medical support, and long-term care that can impact the terms of their separation and the well-being of their children throughout their lives. 

The divorce rate among parents of special needs children is significantly higher than that of couples without children or with children with no medical issues. According to an article published in Psychology Today, 20% of American homes have a child with a chronic illness, disability, or specific health care needs with reports showing parents of children with autism are almost twice as likely to divorce compared to parents of children without special needs. This increased divorce rate can be caused by a variety of factors including the stress of caring for a child with special needs, financial pressure, isolation, and the misalignment of parental responsibilities.

In addressing the unique challenges faced by families of children with special needs, Florida has implemented specific laws to support them. One law is centered around the Parenting Plan, which is a requirement in all divorce cases involving a minor child or children. The Parenting Plan outlines how parental responsibilities and co-parenting will be shared between the parents taking into consideration the best interests of the child. The Parenting Plan should also include provisions to address the unique needs of a child including specific medical care and therapies, transportation coordination, education, and how these services will be supported financially in the short and long term. If this is unfamiliar ground for you and your soon-to-be ex, it is advisable to get advice from trusted professionals such as medical professionals, educators, divorce attorneys or mediators, and financial planners to help make informed decisions. 

In addition to the Parenting Plan, Florida law also allows for the creation of a Special Needs Trust for children with special needs. This type of trust allows parents to set aside funds for the care of their child without jeopardizing the child’s eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The trust can be used to pay for a variety of expenses from medical care to specialized therapies without having to go back to court or have an argument with an ex-spouse about financial responsibilities. As a safety net, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act also allows dependent children to be covered under health plans until the age of 30 in the state of Florida, giving you ample time for planning.

Ending a marriage can be costly regardless of the health of your child, but a point of contention in divorce cases with challenging medical issues can be child support. Florida law requires both parents to provide financial support for their children, including children with special needs. The amount of child support is determined based on the income of both parents, as well as the needs of the child. In cases involving children with special needs, the court may consider additional factors such as the cost of medical care and therapies or the potential for independence in addition to who is the appointed primary caregiver when determining the amount of child support. 

The national divorce rate hovers around 50% and unfortunately, the divorce rate among parents of special needs children makes up a large part of that. As caring parents, it is important to make decisions that are in the best interest of your child but as you are navigating the complexities of a divorce and the care of your child, try to find space for yourself to decompress and recharge because the best parenting decisions come when you are the best you. 

The Rebecca L. Palmer Law Group has long supported the Orlando Chapter of Best Buddies in their mission and positive impact on the community. Join us on Saturday, April 27 for the Best Buddies Friendship Walk at Lake Eola Park at 9:00 AM. Come lend your support to amazing local families and community members.

Rebecca L. Palmer, Esq. is a Family & Marital Law attorney practicing in Orlando, FL. She may be reached at rebecca@rlplawgroup.com.