Divorcing Parents of Children With Disabilities Face Unique Challenges

A new study published last month in the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities revealed that while parents of children with developmental disabilities weren’t more likely to divorce than other parents, their reasons for separating often differed.

Researchers analyzed a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 people – and some of their siblings – beginning in 1957. From this group, study authors identified 190 parents of biological children with developmental disabilities, as compared to 7,250 parents of children without disabilities. What they discovered was that the rate of divorce was about the same for both groups – 1 in 5. However, for parents of children with no developmental issues, risks of divorce were lowest with just one child, and increased with each subsequent child. This was not true though for parents of children with disabilities.

What this suggests is that other children may provide an important support and coping system in caring for a developmentally disabled child, researchers say.

However, there have been previous studies to suggest divorce rates are higher for parents of older children and adolescents with specific conditions, like autism. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that parents of children with autism had a 24 percent chance of divorcing, compared to other parents, who faced a 14 percent chance of divorce.

Many times, parents of special needs children face intense daily demands, and the marital relationship isn’t the primary focus. That can have long-term implications.

In these situations, the decisions that must be made and the specifics of the Indiana divorce agreement can be more complex because it must take into account the needs and responsibilities for that child. Courts will look closely at the best interests of the child. There is no singular definition to that term, as it’s taken on a case-by-case basis.

Depending on the nature and scope of the disability, the American Bar Association has identified issues that may need to be addressed to ensure the child’s needs and best interests are met and advanced include:

  • Visitation arrangements
  • Educational decision-making
  • Transition between homes
  • Medical and health care needs
  • Therapy and support services needs
  • Childcare arrangements and costs
  • Health insurance coverage

Occasionally, it happens that both parents agree on these issues, and all that’s necessary is for the court to formalize that agreement. However, in many cases, parents may disagree on the right approach or the amount of parenting time or the level of involvement in critical education and health care decisions.

It’s important that the final divorce decree be clear with regard to things like how decisions will be shared and how parents will resolve issues when they come to an impasse. This will help to ensure that necessary services to the child won’t be delayed any longer than necessary.

As the children get older, parents should have some outline of how they plan to work together to explore further education, training, employment, independent living and other goals. Children with special needs need both of their parents just as much after the divorce. Working out a plan that is flexible but clear is important.

In cases where disabilities are severe, parents may need to discuss elements such as estate planning, Social Security benefits for the child and all available health benefit resources.

For many of these families, co-parenting will be a lifelong endeavor. Both parents should ensure they are adequately represented.

Indiana Family Law Attorney Burton A. Padove handles divorce and child custody matters throughout northern Indiana, including Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

The Relative Risk of Divorce in Parents of Children With Developmental Disabilities: Impacts of Lifelong Parenting, November 2015, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

More Blog Entries:

Carmer v. Carmer – Prenuptial Agreements, Personal Injury Annuities and Property Division, Nov. 20, 2015, Hammond Divorce Attorney Blog

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