How Will Our Special Needs Child Affect Our Divorce?

By Published On: September 5, 2017

Studies show that simply having children creates stress in even the most solid marriages. What then can we assume is the impact of a special needs child on a marriage? Of course, every marriage is different, and the range of disabilities of special needs children is broad – all the way from mild ADD to severe motor, psychiatric and developmental disorders. But we do know that parents are more likely to divorce when the stress created by a special needs child is added to all of the other stressors in a marriage.

In some cases, the birth of a special needs child alters the fundamental “bargain” that the parties made when they married. Larry and Isabelle’s marriage is illustrative. Larry liked to “live in the moment” and he was attracted to Isabelle’s outgoing personality and spontaneity. Their life style after they married focused on adventure and fun.

When their son Jackson was diagnosed with severe developmental delays at age 3, the professionals told his parents that he needed structure, routine and predictability in his environment. In addition, he now had numerous appointments with a variety of health care professionals each week. Isabelle was the primary parent who focused on adapting how the family functioned in order to meet Jackson’s special needs. Larry came to see the new Isabelle as quite different from the woman he had married, and Isabelle, in turn, came to see Larry quite differently. Their marriage was unable to survive these changes.

When Larry and Isabelle looked for legal representation, they knew they wanted divorce attorneys who would be able to help them work together for Jackson rather than escalating matters into a conflictual situation. Their attorneys identified two sets of issues to be addressed in order to meet Jackson’s needs: financial issues and parenting issues.

On the financial front, Larry and Isabelle took their attorneys’ advice and retained a “life care specialist” to help them quantify what Jackson’s needs were likely to be in the coming years. Then, they worked with a financial professional to help them understand how to best provide for Jackson from their own resources as well preserving his eligibility for public benefits in the future. She also helped them to structure a Special Needs Trust to preserve Jackson’s eligibility for benefits, and advised them on other matters such as life insurance and estate planning.

As to parenting Jackson, Isabelle was clear that Larry’s commitment and involvement were essential, both for Jackson and for her. “I can’t physically and emotionally do it all by myself,” she told Larry and the attorneys. Larry and Isabelle worked hard to develop a parenting plan based on cooperation and shared responsibility for meeting Jackson’s needs, while also respecting the need of each parent to have a life outside of parenting Jackson.

When they looked back on their divorce years later, Isabelle and Larry were appreciative that the attorneys and the divorce process they chose helped them focus on gathering information, solving problems, and coming up with shared solutions rather than on assessing blame and taking adversarial positions. “It would have been a whole different ballgame if we had approached our divorce like some of our friends have – and Jackson would have been the loser,” Larry concluded.


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