Special Needs Children and Divorce Mediation

Special Needs Children and Divorce Mediation By Susan Ingram

One of the important questions I ask on my mediation intake form is whether or not any of the couple’s children has special needs. If they answer yes, then I know I will need to obtain much more information about the specifics of their child’s situation in order to help the parents address important decisions about their child’s current and future care.

The term ‘special needs’ covers a broad range of conditions, some more serious and long-term than others. It includes physical disabilities, chronic disabilities and mental or cognitive disabilities. So, for instance, a special needs child may have:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Diabetes
  • Severe asthma
  • Learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dyscalculia
  • Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Mental or emotional impairment.

The laws and court decisions have set standards that typically look to what is in the ‘best interests of the child’ when determining parenting arrangements and child support obligations. This can be difficult enough to agree upon when a divorcing couple does not have a special needs child. So imagine how much more challenging it is when special needs are added to the mix.

There are so many questions to ask and factors to consider when divorcing parents have a special needs child:

  • The extent of the child’s impairment
  • The types of support and services the child needs now and in the future
  • Whether the child will ultimately be self-sustaining or will need services for his or her lifetime
  • Whether government benefits are available
  • If and when to establish a special needs trust for the child

Getting back to my couples in divorce mediation – I’ve written before about the many benefits of a mediated divorce as opposed to a litigated divorce. Among those benefits is the fact that the couple learns to communicate in a better and more cooperative way. As you can imagine, this is especially important when a couple shares a special needs child for whom they will potentially be making joint decisions over the lifetime of that child.

I will be following up with additional blogs on more specific issues that are raised by this important subject. I look forward to hearing about the experiences of parents with special needs children as well as those of other divorce professionals who work with these parents. Please feel free to share your experiences in the “Post a Comment” box below.


Comments from Social Media

I completely agree with you, Susan. I was recently retained to mediate a case with a special needs child. One of the other problems is that the divorce potential increases significantly if special needs children are involved.

Mark B. Baer


Yes, this is a major challenge. I had a marriage that was undone in large part by the challenges related to my spouse’s child who had/has fairly severe cerebral palsy. Such children require so much from their parents that everything else (including the relationship) often comes under severe pressure.

John Morrison


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