Divorce is difficult, and even more so with children involved. It can be especially difficult when the children have unique needs. The stresses of divorce can have an increased impact on these children, and their special needs can have a major impact on custody and child support. As a parent, you are in the best position to know what your child needs, and it is your job to show the court what those needs are and to be honest with yourself about your ability to meet those needs.
Custody and child support can be determined by either agreement or a judge’s order after a hearing. Either way, once a custody order is in place, that order determines what will happen when the parents disagree. It is important to be sure that all of your child’s unique needs are covered in that order so that any disagreements are minimized and you won’t have to put your child through the stresses of court in the future. You and your child’s other parent may disagree on your child’s diagnosis, the best treatment for their condition, their educational future, and many other situations. In both agreement discussions and hearings, you need to be upfront with your opinions on these important issues and present any concerns that you have as clearly as possible so they can be addressed up front. Consulting with the child’s medical and educational providers or asking them to testify in a hearing can also help make sure that your child’s unique needs are adequately addressed.
When you design your custody schedule, you may need to make adjustments to the regular custody schedules. Children with unique needs may need to transition households less often that other children, staying in one place longer at a time, and may need for routines to be as consistent between both homes as possible. Physical needs like wheelchairs, other mobility aides, or support animals may require special living conditions for both parents, and not having those accommodations may limit one parent’s physical custody time. If your child will not be able to support or care for themselves as an adult, you may also need to maintain a custody arrangement after they are no longer a minor.
Your child’s unique needs also come with unique expenses. Child support in North Carolina is usually calculated by a standard formula that doesn’t account for children with unique needs, but this calculation is not mandatory. A judge may decide to deviate from the standard number based on the extra medical expenses that your child has. If you are requesting that the judge award this additional child support, you will need to back up your request with evidence like prior medical bills, information on the typical progression of any medical issues your child has, or testimony and invoices from caregivers for your child. Depending on the severity of your child’s needs, you may also no longer be able to work without a second adult in your home to assist with care, which will impact the amount of child support.
Even if your child won’t be able to support themselves as an adult, there is no obligation in North Carolina for a parent to support an adult child. You may want to consider coming to an agreement with your child’s other parent and entering a contract to support your child past that point, because the court can’t force “child support” for an adult without a prior agreement, no matter their needs or difficulties.
Every good parent wants to protect their children as much as possible during a divorce or custody battle, and by being thorough and prepared, you can help make sure that your child’s unique needs are addressed both now and in the future.