When a divorcing couple makes decisions regarding custody, visitation and developing a parenting plan, the best interests of the child should always be the primary focus. However, when divorcing parents have a child who has special needs (particularly if the child has serious physical and/or intellectual challenges), the physical and emotional needs of the child will likely be a key determinant of many of their decisions.

Considerations for Physical Custody

If a child requires special equipment and/or accessibility features in a home, it may be best and more cost effective for one parent to have sole physical custody. The other parent could visit the child as regularly as possible in the home that's set up for his or her needs. The parent with custody may even elect to leave for short periods while his or her ex moves into that home with the child.

Another important consideration is the child's care schedule. If he or she has regular physical therapy, medical appointments and/or tutoring, for example, the visitation should be scheduled around that rather than disrupt the child's routine. Further, children who attend school are usually better off remaining in their school.

Legal Custody Determination Can Be Crucial

Legal custody is different than physical custody. It involves who is allowed to make decisions about matters including a child's medical care and education. With a special needs child, health care decisions are less likely to end when he or she reaches 18. They could continue well beyond that and potentially for a lifetime.

Legal custody can be a source of serious conflict for parents of special needs children. Often, parents have very different views about what kind of medical procedures they want a disabled child to have. They may also disagree about mainstreaming the child into a traditional school. Arguments over the care of a special needs child may have been what ultimately led to the end of the marriage in the first place.

Couples need to determine whether they are able to share legal custody and make these decisions together or if it's best for the child if the decisions are made by one parent. Ultimately, it may be necessary to call on a judge to make that determination.

Divorcing parents who have a child with special needs should share all of their concerns regarding custody as well as child and spousal support with their family law attorneys. You may want to seek out an attorney who has experiences handling divorce cases where special needs kids are involved. Your attorney can help you work towards achieving what is best for your child as you move forward as co-parents.