Special Considerations: Getting a Divorce When You Have a Special Needs Child
Getting divorced when you are the parent of a special needs or medically complex child can seem like a daunting task that could put an unbearable amount of additional stress on an already stressed-out family system. Many couples with a special needs child make the default decision to stay in an unhappy marriage because the unique issues they face seem impossible to manage on their own or in separate households.
For all parents, one of the scariest parts of a divorce is the co-parenting plan. When parents of special needs or medically complex children get divorced there are additional issues that may arise in the process. Some of these issues may include:
Medical and therapy appointments
Special diet consideration
SSDI or respite funds
IEP and school issues
Transitions and travel planning
Guardianship when the child turns 18
Special needs trusts, ABLE accounts and 529s
Because of these and other unique circumstances associated with divorce when there is a special needs child it may be necessary to deviate from the standard parenting plan or child support formulas provided by the courts. If this is the case, the collaborative divorce process is almost certainly the best route for the whole family.
Consider a Flexible & Support Divorce Process
Collaborative divorces allow for flexibility and creativity that you are unlikely to find through the courts. In a collaborative divorce you are not bound by standardized forms or one-size fits all protocols. If you are raising a special needs child you already know that many people do not understand the additional time, energy and money you put into meeting your child’s needs. If you have decided to move forward with a divorce you will need a team who understands the many complicated issues involved with ending your marriage while also preserving a safe and consistent environment for your child.
Dena Tranen, LCSW is a trained collaborative law professional, licensed clinical social worker and former member of CFLA. She works as a mental health coach, therapist, and co-parenting specialist. To learn more about your Missouri divorce process options give her a call today.
What Happens When One Parent No Longer Follows the Parenting Plan?
Unless the other parent takes steps to enforce the parenting plan,
nothing happens. But, if the other
parent wants to enforce the parenting plan - what options are available?
A parenting plan is entered as part of a judgment and becomes an
order of the court. Not following the
parenting plan is a violation of a court order.
As a result of the violation, the parent seeking compliance could file a
verified motion for contempt asking the court to enforce its order. The noncompliant parent could be subject to
sanctions, including attorney’s fees and costs incurred by the parent who was
required to file a motion to enforce the order.
This option is available for violations of both financial and
custody/visitation provisions of the parenting plan.
If custody or visitation is denied or interfered with by a parent
without good cause, then the other parent may file a family access motion with
the court. A family access motion does
not require legal counsel in order to prepare it or file it with the court. Court clerks will provide an explanation for
the procedures for filing a family access motion as well as a form to use in
filing the motion. The specifics of the
violation of the parenting plan must be stated in the family access
motion. The noncompliant parent will be
served with the motion and a summons to appear in court. There will be a hearing at which the court
will determine whether there has been a violation of the order for custody or
visitation without good cause.
Pursuant to either a family access motion or motion for contempt,
upon a finding by the court that its order for custody or visitation has not
been complied with without good cause, the court shall order a remedy, which
may include, but is not limited to: 1)
compensatory or make-up time; 2) participation by the parent violating the
parenting plan in counseling to educate him/her about the importance of
providing the child with a continuing and meaningful relationship with both
parents; 3) assessment of a fine up to $500 dollars against the noncompliant parent
payable to the other parent; 4) requiring the noncompliant parent to post bond
or security to ensure future compliance with the court’s access orders; 5)
requiring the noncompliant parent to pay the other parent’s attorney’s fees; and
6) ordering the noncompliant parent to pay the cost of counseling to
reestablish the parent-child relationship between the child and the other
A person who chooses not to follow the parenting plan is choosing to violate a court order. Courts do not look favorably on violations of their orders without good cause. When a parent no longer follows the parenting plan without good cause, there are remedies available to the other parent, but the parent seeking compliance must take steps to get them.
More goes into telling your kids about divorce than just having a one-time, prepackaged sit down and delivering the information.
The stage of development that your child is in will have a big impact on how you have the conversation about your divorce and what to expect next.
Children who are young, under 5, are very egocentric, which means everything is about them. They also have a limited ability to talk about their feelings and no capacity to understand the complexities of something like divorce.
When having the divorce talk with your young child keep it simple.
Focus on what is going to happen, like who will live where and who will be taking care of your child. Make certain they know their basic needs will be met. Put yourself in their shoes. What does a 4 year old worry about? Here is a simple question you may need to answer: “Where will I sleep, who will tuck me in?”
Expect to answer the same questions over and over as they move through this stage of development. Your child may even leave one parent’s home and go to the next with questions of, “when is mommy or daddy going to be home”? This is quite normal.
Children ages 6-11 have more understanding of their feelings but see things very black and white.
If your child is in this age group, they often place blame on one parent or the other, or may even feel that it is their fault that the divorce happened. A child of this age may think that he or she said or did something that finalized your decision to move out or that they gave you the go ahead to break up their family.
Having ongoing discussions with your child about the divorce to reiterate the important things they should know is normal and in good practice.
The experience of your divorce changes over times as they grow and have their own life experiences. When they are children it is important to let them know who will care for them and that they came from love even though you are no longer married. As they get older something that may be important for them to hear is that not all marriages end in divorce and your path isn’t theirs.
Teenagers understand a lot more as they are more abstract thinkers than their younger selves.
Keep note of how your teen behaved before the divorce compared to after. Teens are tricky because they are generally moody creatures, so it can be hard to tell if they are moody from hormones or moody from the stress of divorce. One thing is for certain, they are impacted and may play the blame game as well.
Adult information is adult information.
Every situation is unique and if you need a consult do so, but a rule of thumb is that your teen may seem mature enough to hear the nitty gritty details about how your spouse cheated or said this or that, but keep it to yourself. This information will not gain their alliance long term and WILL NOT serve them well.
Even though you are getting a divorce, do your best to at least stay united on the parental front.
The more parents can come together in the consistency of their message to the kids about the divorce the healthier the kids will be. The happier the family will be. Never try to get your child to take one side or the other because that will only tear them in two.
Collaborative divorce will offer you more of an opportunity to do this because it makes space for emotion and healing whereas litigation focuses on legality.
If you need more guidance on this subject, Collaborative Law or other issues that arise in divorce you can contact me or any professional on the collaborative website.
About the Author : Kristin Craren
Kristin is a former member of CFLA.
Parenting Plans and Collaborative Divorce
If you are getting divorced and have children 18 years old or under, you will have a parenting plan as part of your divorce judgment. A parenting plan establishes the schedule for the children’s care, the manner in which decisions regarding the children’s health and welfare will be made, and the support arrangements for the children. It is essential to develop good parenting plans and collaborative divorce is a process that provides a great deal of support.
You Still Need a Parenting Plan
Even parents who are able to cooperate in sharing the children’s time will need a parenting plan. Your ability to agree with the other parent today doesn’t guarantee that level of cooperation in the future, particularly as the parents recouple, move, or experience other changes in their lives. The parenting plan establishes the fallback arrangements if the parents are unable to agree.
Parenting Plans and Collaborative Divorce Process
The collaborative divorce process provides parents with substantial support and expertise to assist them in establishing a parenting plan. Each collaborative professional team includes a mental health professional whose job includes giving the parents guidance regarding children’s developmental needs, and who can offer hints and suggestions on crafting a workable parenting schedule that takes into account the children’s ages and unique circumstances, along with the parents’ work and travel schedules and other potentially challenging issues that make fashioning a parenting plan more difficult.
For cases in which the issues surrounding the children are more complex, the collaborative team can be expanded to include a Child Specialist who can delve more deeply into the parenting issues by interviewing the children as well as counselors, child care workers, medical personnel, and others having knowledge about the children’s needs. The Child Specialist brings this information to the parents and assists them in coming up with a plan suited to the family’s unique needs.
Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; no single plan suits all families. The children’s ages, health, and mental and physical conditions and limitations all need to be taken into account. Both parents’ needs and desires are also factors that must be dealt with. The Collaborative Process provides a forum for discussing these issues and the professional support, based upon experience and training, that will assist parents in coming up with an effective and practical plan.
Review the Collaborative Family Law Association's website for more information and to locate a list of mental health professionals and child specialists, trained in the collaborative divorce process. Many professionals in the Collaborative Family Law Association offer an initial consultation at no charge, so you will have an opportunity to determine how parenting plans and collaborative divorce can help you in the divorce process.
Developing Empathy: The Impact of Negative Comments During Divorce
How do you manage your feelings toward your ex-spouse when you are around your children?
If you have children getting divorced does not end your relationship with your co-parent. So how do you keep your negative thoughts and beliefs about your co-parent from your child? It’s tricky and it’s important.
What is Your Message?
Children understand their parents are divorcing because they no longer love each other, if they've seen you fighting through your divorce, they know you may not care about each other any longer either.
When a child internalizes the message that “Even if my parents cannot be together they can still care for and about me together” it can help that child heal from the grief and pain of the divorce more quickly and support the rebuilding of their resiliency.
However, if the message becomes “my parents are not capable of getting along, even when it has to do with something that is important as me” it can send the message that the child is unable to bridge the gap of love between her parents.
Children need to see their parents through the eyes of a child, not through the lens of the divorce.
Comparing Your Child to Your Ex-Spouse
Your child is a part of you: They may have your nose or your chin, your sense of style or your interest in how things work. Your child is a part of the other parent too: They may have their enthusiasm, their sense of adventure, or their sense of humor.
In her life your child may have heard similar comparisons as those above and she probably felt pride and a connection to her parent because of it.
If those comparisons turn into insults it can intensify a child's sadness and confusion. If instead of hearing a positive connection to their parent "You have your dad’s sense of humor" it shifts to "You are so slow, just like your dad" a child can translate that into a message from you about your love for her. So when a parent tells a child they are "just like their father" when talking about a disliked habit or characteristic that child's gets a message loud and clear "You don't like dad, and since I'm like dad in this way, you must not like me either".
Maybe your ex-spouse is not a good person – and you want your child to know so you can keep them from experiencing the pain you have felt. Children need to determine their own beliefs about that parent and they will get there in their own way, in their own time (with the obvious exception of abuse or neglect). Having you as a sounding board, without adding fuel to the fire, is the best way to help that child cope with the possibility of a difficult relationship with the other parent. Or it may be that your negative experience of your ex will never be your child's experience, that’s okay too.
Helping Your Child Transition Through Divorce
Know that a child can transition more quickly through the grief and pain of a divorce when their parents are able to manage their co-parent relationship with low conflict. The benefit is that a child will grow up feeling loved and committed to by both parents even when they are not in the same household.
Dealing with an ex-spouse is a life-long journey. You voyage from marriage to divorce to co-parenting. Finding a way to make peace, even if it’s only one sided, can reduce the emotional sting these travels can produce.
Discussing Your Children in the Collaborative Process
Clients’ most urgent concern when confronting divorce is often the children. How often will I see them? Who will make decisions about my child’s health or learning issues?
Types of Child Custody
It’s important to understand that under Missouri law there are two types of custody: legal and physical. Legal custody – or decision-making authority - refers to who makes the decisions about the child’s welfare and development. This includes decision-making about such questions as religious education or whether and where a child will attend summer camp. Physical custody – better called parenting time - refers, of course, to where and in which household the children will be physically present at specific times.
Either type of custody can be “sole” to one parent or “joint” (shared) by both parents. If a couple has joint decision-making responsibility, they must first discuss and then agree about all issues relating to the child’s wellbeing before decisions are put in place.
Sole decision-making responsibility to one parent may occur when there is a lot of ill will between the parents and they are unable to have productive discussions about the children.
Joint parenting time usually means that each parent has substantial, but not necessarily 50-50, parenting time with the children.
When a parent is awarded sole parenting time, he or she has all or most of the parenting time with the children. This may be appropriate when one parent is impaired in some way and is unable to manage substantial parenting time.
Each parent’s rights and responsibilities for the children will be set out in a parenting plan that will become part of your divorce judgment. The court system uses a “check-the-box” form parenting plan that will likely not be suited to your family’s specific needs.
Using A Child Specialist Is Better Than Using A Judge
One of the greatest advantages of resolving your divorce collaboratively is that you and your spouse can, with the help and support of collaborative professionals, including a child specialist (a mental health professional with training specific to child development issues), develop a parenting plan that addresses your children’s unique issues now and over time, as the children grow.
Your child specialist will help you make decisions about parenting time and decision-making that meet your children’s needs and are most workable for you and your spouse. A parenting plan developed by a judge who does not know you and your spouse and does not love your children as you do - and one who is likely to use a “form parenting plan” - can result in long-term hostility and repeated litigation between the parents.
You and, most importantly, your children deserve a divorce resolution process that carefully considers the children’s needs. Resolving custody issues with the help and support of the professionals available to you, your spouse and the children in the collaborative process is much more likely to result in a parenting plan that not only meets your family’s unique needs, but also stands the test of time so that the parents will not need to return to court later to modify the plan.
The Importance of Post Divorce Counseling
Post-divorce counseling must sound like an oxymoron. If you were going to go to counseling you would have gone while you were married to save the marriage, right? Post-divorce counseling isn’t about “saving” the relationship, rather, it is about the children (if any) and learning.
Post-Divorce Counseling Helps You and the Children
There are a few things families who go to post-divorce counseling will learn and discuss:
The relationship between the x-partners must be redefined
Options for redefining the relationship and differences between co-parents and parallel parents
Appropriate boundaries for everyone in the family, especially when the family becomes “blended” through remarriage
Talk openly about what went wrong, and learn from past mistakes
The last bullet is a tall order for many divorced couples because there is typically so much hurt and anger that it is hard to give or receive constructive information.
Think of your relationship with your x-partner post-divorce as a business relationship; parenting is the business and the product is mentally healthy, productive members of society. Years and years of volatile parental alienation and arguments damage kids for years, even into adulthood.Having a conversation with a mental health professional that specializes in divorce is of utmost importance when seeking this kind of service. There are many professionals out there and it is your right as a client to conduct a short interview when pursuing the right professional for you. If you do this you will reduce your chances of getting frustrated or dropping out of therapy by finding a counselor that fits your family quickly and efficiently.
Kristin is a former member of CFLA.
Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Plans
It is obvious to parents that children have different needs at different ages. It is not always obvious to the family court that this statement applies to parenting plans. The court standard of “best interests of the child” is different for children of different ages.
Children 2 and Under
Children age two and under are working on attachment and basic trust in their caretakers and their environment. When parents are separated they need frequent short visits with each parent and consistency with the primary attachment figure. The routines at both houses need to be the same and the cooperation between the parents must be good for the child to go back and forth. If mother is the primary attachment figure, father needs a few hours each day to spend time with the child.
Children 3 to 5 Years Old
Children from three to five are becoming more independent and verbal. They can do two to three nights in a row at each house. However, they have a hard time being away from either parent more than three days unless it is for a vacation. The 2-2-3 schedules works well for this age. In this schedule one parent has Monday and Tuesday overnight, and the other parent has Wednesday and Thursday overnight. Then the first parent has Friday, Saturday, and Sunday overnights. In the next week the schedule is reversed.
Children 6 to 13 Years Old - School Age
School age children from six to thirteen are the most flexible and can adapt to a variety of parenting schedules. If parenting time is split 50/50, the usual schedule is called a 2-2-5-5. In this schedule one parent always has Monday and Tuesday overnights and the other always has Wednesday and Thursday overnights. They alternate the weekend from Friday to Sunday overnights. Children of this age have many activities and the parents must work together to get them to scheduled events and plans with friends. Basic routines should be the same at both houses.
Teens, like preschoolers, present their own unique needs. If they have a schedule they are most likely to stay with that schedule if the parent’s live close enough to enable them to socialize with friends and attend their activities. If the divorce occurs in their teenage years, they will want to have some voice in how the schedule is made. Parents need to consider their desires, but make it clear that they are making the decision so that the teen does not get caught in the middle. They often prefer to have one home be the primary home and this reflects the teen’s focus on their own needs, not necessarily a preference for that parent. It is also important for parents to have the same rules as a teen will choose the most lenient parent and sabotage the co-parenting relationship. Teens are not likely to want to spend quality time with either parent as they are focused on their own life.
Children are resilient and able to adapt to any schedule and there is no research that documents one schedule as being better than another. Parents must find a way to share the parenting that fits the needs of all the family members in the best possible manner.