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Co-parenting a child with special needs or medical issues

By September 17, 2021February 23rd, 2024No Comments

What happens when separated parents are faced with their child’s medical issues? Divorced parents know it can be difficult to co-parent at the best of times, but if your child is going through a serious illness or medical issue, it is sure to be a particularly testing time for you both. Not to mention the added difficulty for a special needs child, who has to deal with the shift in family dynamic and many changes to their routines. Let’s take a look at issues around co-parenting a child with special needs or a long-term medical condition.

Having a child undergo a serious medical issue is a time when communication and cooperation are more important than ever. This can be extremely difficult at a time of heightened emotions during divorce, or in a situation when some couples no longer even talk let alone be ‘amicable’. Are there any tips experts can offer to help you manage this highly stressful time, for the sake of your child getting the best possible care? The following advice may help if you are co-parenting a child with special needs or a medical condition.

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1. First, do not withhold information

Unless there are specific court orders and a legal reason not to, parents should not deny the other parent access to the child’s status and the ability to research and query healthcare providers. Both parents have the right to know what is happening with their child and to be able to access information and help.

Legally, there may be medical releases that need to be signed to allow both parents to access medical records and communicate with healthcare providers.

If your ex is not able to attend appointments, you can give him or her a summary of the events and outcomes by text or email so that they can stay in the loop. Withholding information out of spite ultimately threatens to hurt your child, not your ex.

2. Be prepared to be highly flexible

Your parenting plan (or court parenting orders) should be individually crafted to outline how both parents will care for the child. For a special needs child or one with a medical condition that requires managing, the agreement may need to take into account that the child may need time to adjust. It will need to be sensitive to the child’s usual care routines and be able to be adapted to serve the child’s needs best. When co-parenting a child with special needs, arrangements often need to change over time, so parents need to accept that they have to be more flexible than most. They may need to help the child stick to the new routine, but also be flexible from time to time when needed during the transitional time.

3. Be prepared for enforced time together with your ex

You may need to share waiting rooms and examination room appointments and it may be unavoidable that you share time at hospital or during medical appointments or procedures. While you may actively dislike your ex, always remember this is not about you, and your child should be able to feel as much love and support in the situation as possible—from both parents.  You may not both need to attend all routine appointments, but for surgeries and other hospitalisations, you may need to cross paths with your ex, and you need to mentally prepare for this.

4. Access dispute resolution services

If there are disagreements about care or doctors, you need to separate the reasons for the disagreement from the issues around the divorce. Above all, you need to remain calm so that you can make sensible decisions for your child. Some hospitals offer the service of a social worker to help mediate these situations and provide referrals to support services. Or you can look into mediation and your other alternative dispute resolution options.

5. Agree on costs

Disputes about payment for care can also be a source of conflict.  There are many financial challenges for parents of children with special needs or medical conditions. Typically this includes things like medical care, therapy, testing and assessments. Both parents’ homes might need to be equipped and adapted to suit the child’s needs.

If you have court orders this may spell out such arrangements, but in the absence of court orders, it’s important you and your ex agree specifically and early on about how costs will be shared. If one parent is more well off than the other, it may be wiser to have that party pay costs upfront and pursue collection from their spouse later, rather than potentially affect the child with drama relating to ongoing financial disputes.

Further, unlike separated parents with healthy children, co-parenting a child with special needs or medical issues demands a shared lifelong commitment to parenting. The child will often need ongoing financial support throughout life, rather than til coming of age at 18. So in addition to ongoing medical care costs, the older child may also require financial assistance for things like private education, vocational training, the cost of assisted living arrangements, and basic living expense help beyond the limits of welfare.

Factors that may increase disputes over costs include when parents don’t agree on the severity of a child’s disability or illness, or the reality that ongoing financial support will be necessary for the child’s whole life.

6. Set up a trust for the child during divorce

A solution to handling future medical and other costs of the child may be to have a trust set up during the property settlement. A divorce financial planner can model scenarios of your child’s future needs and help you with setting up and managing the trust.

7. Retain a neutral third party

Allocate a neutral third party to be available to help with communication, decision-making and implementation. This neutral person should be very familiar with the ins and outs of the parenting agreement and the family’s dynamics. Consider looking into engaging a parenting coordinator, a professionally trained practitioner who works specifically to help co-parents manage and implement their agreements and court orders.

You may also like to read our blog on getting a family law team together.

8. Set up information sharing systems

Take advantage of the online tools that exist nowadays to help co-parents organise and coordinate their child’s information and schedule. It’s extra important to be able to maintain good communication even when you can’t or don’t want to speak regularly with your ex. Tools that are designed to help separated parents collate and coordinate information about medical appointments and the like will ensure everyone is kept in the loop. A bonus is that most of these kind of tools store a log of messaging/communication with the other parent, which can be helpful if the matter ends up in court.

9. Family court and co-parenting a child with special needs

Parenting a child with special needs demands extra time and attention. Sometimes, rather than ferrying the child between two homes, it can be best for them to primarily live with one parent. But if there is a parenting dispute over who should be the child’s primary carer, the child’s special needs or medical condition will be factored into the decision by the court. In many cases, one parent has been more actively involved in the child’s treatment and care. That parent might have taken responsibility for attending appointments and handling therapeutic interventions and medication administration. They may have a well-researched knowledge of the child’s condition. The other parent may have taken more of a back seat in parenting and may be far less knowledgeable during the relationship.

It’s important that if you are the parent of a special needs child, you demonstrate your capacity to deal with the child’s needs and show awareness of the myriad aspects of your child’s needs.

10. Finally, take care of you

Raising a child with special needs or ongoing medical issues can often be more stressful than most parenting situations. Add divorce to the mix and it can be an incredibly hard time to go through. So it’s important to monitor your personal wellness during this time. Make sure to seek help from counsellors or other professionals who can help the co-parenting side of it go as peacefully as possible.

Co-parenting a child with special needs and need assistance with a family law matter? If your family law matter relates to your children’s health condition or special needs, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400. We have experience dealing with such matters.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family law.


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