HOW IS A DIVORCE WITH A CHILD WITH AUTISM OR SPECIAL NEEDS DIFFERENT?Edit
I am the parent of a special needs child. I am getting a divorce. How is my case different?Edit
MARGARET “PEGI” PRICE
Special Needs Issues - Informational Booklets
HELPING FAMILIES WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
PRICE LAW FIRM
SPECIAL NEEDS AND FAMILY LAW
7777 Bonhomme Ave., Suite 1600 St. Louis, MO 63105 • telephone: 314.721.0042 • www.PegiPrice.com
How is my case different from other divorce cases?
I am the parent of a special needs child. I have decided to get a divorce. How is my case different from other divorce cases?
Standard approach to divorce
In some instances, the special needs of the child are such that the standard approach to divorce can be used without any negative results to the child. In these instances, it is fine to use the standard approach, but only after these factors have been carefully considered and evaluated. If, on the other hand, there are some aspects of the child’s special needs which must be taken into consideration in evaluating the divorce case and determining a fair and appropriate result, those issues should be brought up to your lawyer and to the judge.
Divorce is hard enough on children and parents. Children with special needs are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. We have a duty to ensure that they are protected and treated fairly.
Our society is becoming more aware of special needs issues. I remember just 30 years ago seeing children with disabilities regularly taunted by other students at school. Some teachers would step in to stop the mistreatment, but others would merely look away. Our society is now evolving in that we are no longer tolerating as much cruelty. As our awareness and growth continue, we’re trying to find ways to handle difficult situations more appropriately and fairly.
If you do not know, for example, that transitions can be very difficult for persons with autism spectrum disorder, you would not understand why a visitation schedule in which the child sleeps in one parent’s house for a couple days and then the other parent’s house for a couple days would be a nightmare for this child. If the lawyers and judge do not realize that a 175 pound teenager with cerebral palsy may require special lifting and transfer equipment which is only located at one parent’s house, a parenting plan or visitation schedule which provides for extended visitation at the other parent’s house could result in the child having to spend days on end in bed because of the physical transfer logistics.
As soon as judges and lawyers become educated on why our children sometimes need to have their unique needs addressed when our families go through divorce, the judges and lawyers readily understand – they “get it.” As a parent of a child with special needs, you know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to deal with someone who does not “get it.”
Cookie cutter approach does not work
I have been a divorce lawyer for over 20 years. I am also the mother of a young man who was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. At the time of the divorce, my son was six years old and still essentially nonverbal with autism. I was scared and worried about the future. The existing legal forms did not begin to address what my son needed. Thankfully, I had a cooperative spouse and a wise judge. They both gave me the freedom to write up special, nonstandard terms to make sure that the needs of my son were met fairly and appropriately.
That divorce was over eight years ago. Since that time, I have helped many families all over the United States when they have gone through divorce with a special needs child. And now, I am helping you. I have been blessed with my son emerging from autism two years after the divorce. I want to help as many families as I can. I also want to give a message of hope that you and your children really can have a great life after divorce.
Dire consequences and hope
In order to have a great life after divorce, your child’s special needs must be met during the divorce. Most special needs children live with their mother after the divorce. This is not man bashing, this is simply reality. Another reality is the fact that the vast majority of these single mother/special needs child households are in abject poverty within two years of the divorce. It is my mission to educate the legal community and parents of special needs children, to change this grim reality. I refuse to believe that in the United States of America this should continue. Not here. Not now. We can change this. We must change this. You can be part of the change. Start by educating yourself on these issues so you can help your family. Then, when things get settled in your family, do as I am and help other families.
The first step in educating yourself is reading booklets like these as well as any other material you can get your hands on. You then need to make sure your lawyer becomes educated on your child’s special needs issues and how they are relevant in your divorce. Do the busy work for your lawyer. You know your child’s disability or special needs far better than your lawyer, and you’ll save yourself a lot of money on legal fees as well. Find a couple of really good articles that teach your lawyer the basics of your child’s disability. Don’t drown her in books and articles on the subject. Just give her two or three well-chosen articles. Go through the articles and on a separate piece of paper define the terminology that your lawyer might not know.
You also need to collect the necessary documents, reports, evaluations and all other papers that will help your lawyer prove the case to the judge. You need to prove by documents and, if possible, by expert testimony, what your child’s condition is, how that affects her life, exactly how your case needs to be treated differently and why.
Inform your lawyer
So let’s start with the evaluation of your child’s situation. Clearly, your child has a special need or you would not be reading this booklet. You need to determine if your child’s special need should be addressed during the divorce. If it should, it should be brought up immediately to your lawyer. Tell your lawyer what your child’s special needs are, and walk your lawyer through “a day in the life” with your child. Explain your child’s likelihood for financial independence and living on his own as an adult. Tell your lawyer the likelihood of your child being able to graduate with a regular high school diploma, to complete college, have a marketable job skill or trade, pursue a career or profession. If your lawyer is unaware that your child may spend the rest of his life living with you or in a group home or other supported living environment, your lawyer cannot possibly get a fair and appropriate result for you and your family.
“Day in the Life”
Make sure your lawyer knows how much time and work caring for your child takes. Your lawyer needs to know how this impacts your ability to maintain part-time or full-time employment. Your lawyer also needs to know how this could affect your opportunity for career advancement in the future. Start keeping track of how many sick days your child has, doctor appointments, therapy visits and other activities. Get a calendar and just write these things on the days on which they occur. Do not read any editorial comments. Make sure you include start times and end times, time for driving and preparation time. Also note in your calendar which parent was present for each of these events, and which one transported the child. You should prepare for your lawyer “ a day in the life” for your typical day as well.
List your child’s expenses
List all the expenses involved in raising your child. Provide detail. As they say, “the devil is in the details.” If your child has to be on a special nutritional regime because of PKU, celiac disease or some other reason, make sure the court realizes why his food costs are higher, and why you have to drive to specialty stores and spend more time preparing special food for your child. If your child needs special orthopedic devices which can be rapidly outgrown, don’t just list the cost for one of these items. When an item will be outgrown or have to be replaced several times, include this detail. Track all the medical costs – doctors, therapists, medications, supplements, specialized equipment, home environment modifications, co-pays, deductibles and all other medical costs. Get receipts and billing statements.
Visitation schedules and parenting plans
Have your lawyer give you a copy of the standard visitation schedules and parenting plans typically used by your local court. If there is not a standard plan, ask you lawyer to give you a copy of one that he would probably tailor to use in your case. Go through the schedule and plan, and write on a separate page the ways in which they need to be modified for your child’s special needs. For each modification, state the reason the modification is necessary, and the possible harm to or problems for your child if the modification is not made. Child support
Have your lawyer explain to you in detail how child support is determined by your local court. Calculate whether the amount of child support you would receive under the usual approach would be enough for you to meet your child’s special needs. If not, ask your lawyer for a copy of materials which explain how the child support is usually calculated, and what factors are included in the calculation. You can then determination which expenses of your child are not being addressed, and request that they be added to the calculation, or be ordered to be paid in addition to the regular amount of child support.
Talk to your lawyer about spousal support, also known as maintenance or alimony. If you are the parent who will be the primary caregiver, do the math and determine if, with your income, child support and any maintenance your lawyer expects you to receive, you will be able to meet your needs and those of your special needs child. If not, determine how far short this total is, and work with your lawyer to build a case for increasing the amount of child support and/or maintenance to a fair and adequate amount.
Evaluate your case
After you have thoroughly addressed all of these factors, you will be able to determine which issues you need to present to the judge. Then you and your lawyer need to decide how you can build the strongest possible case for these issues. You might obtain documents yourself. You could sign releases for your lawyer to get records. Also, either your lawyer or your spouse’s lawyer can subpoena the records from the company that has the records – the pediatrician, the school district, your employer or the bank. However they are obtained, make sure you get a copy of all the records right away. Go through them meticulously and write a list of things you need to discuss with your lawyer. Your lawyer does not know the complete back story behind some of these items – but you might, Putting your heads together can make these documents more powerful for you at court.
Best interests of your child
The bottom line is this – If it is in the best interests of your child for her special needs to be addressed by the court when you are going through divorce, then they should be. The courts are required to act in the best interests of the children in these cases. You are merely asking them to do their job. You also need to give them the tools, information and guidance in order to do so. By doing so, you are not only helping your family – you are being a part of the change that is happening in America, and you are helping the families that come behind you. After your case, the lawyers and the judge will be prepared and educated to better handle special needs cases. The families who follow you will achieve a better result, and you can be a part of that.
If your child’s special needs are properly taken care of during the divorce, you can beat the odds and not be one of the single mother/special needs child households in abject poverty within two years of divorce. If your child’s special needs are properly taken care of during the divorce, you are giving your child his greatest opportunity to be the best he can be in his life.
© Margaret “Pegi” Price 2009. All rights reserved. Many more informational booklets are available at www.PegiPrice.com
About the author
Margaret "Pegi" S. Price, J.D., Attorney and Author
Margaret "Pegi" S. Price, J.D., is a lawyer whose practice is limited exclusively to the practice of family law-divorce, paternity, child support, custody and visitation, guardianships, and adoptions. Pegi is a past Chair of the Family Law Section of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and is a member of AFCC, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, and of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). Pegi wrote the books, What You Need to Know About Divorce (1997), The Special Needs Child and Divorce: A Guide to Evaluating and Handling Cases (2009) and the book Divorce and The Special Needs Child: A Guide for Parents (2010) and she has written many legal articles. She presented a paper and was a speaker at the 2006 World Autism Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, on the subject of Divorce and Families with Autism. Pegi has also spoken on the subject of Divorce and Families with Autism at the National Conference of the Autism Society of America and at regional legal community conferences and seminars for educa- tors and professionals in the special needs community.
She is the past President of the Gateway (St. Louis) chapter of the Autism Society of America and has done extensive lobbying of state government of behalf of families with special needs. Pegi is very involved in the special needs community, works with many individuals and families who have special needs , and does public speaking on this subject to increase awareness of special needs and spread a message of hope to the families.
Her son was diagnosed with autism at age 3 (1998) and underwent intensive early intervention and therapy. Three years later, Pegi went through divorce and wrote her first Parenting Plan involving serious special needs. Two years later (March 2003), her son emerged from autism. His story aired on NBC in February 2005 as one of the first children in the United States to emerge from autism. He is called a pioneer in the field of autism. His story was the subject of a feature on CW11, which filmed him at school and while flying an airplane. He has been flying airplanes since he was 10 years old. He is now 14 years old.
Although the writer's experience has been primarily with autism, her experience spans many types of special needs. Her younger sister is disabled and required hours of daily physical therapy throughout childhood. Pegi has done a great deal of work with special needs children and adults, including working with mentally challenged persons and teaching fine art to blind children and adults.
© Margaret “Pegi” Price 2009. All rights reserved.
Price Law Firm 314.721.0042 Helping Special Needs Families www.PegiPrice.com