By Craig C. Reaves, CELA, Special Needs Alliance
The family disruption that often accompanies divorce is compounded when a son or daughter with disabilities is involved. Divorce attorneys are often unfamiliar with the nuances of how public benefits interact with child support, alimony, and custody. Laws differ dramatically by state and are in flux in some states, as legislators and the courts deal with a growing need to address the special circumstances that arise when the divorce involves a son or daughter with disabilities.
Child support charts simply don’t account for the extra financial requirements of many children with disabilities. The costs of healthcare, therapies, equipment, special diets, support services, transportation and more are often difficult to accurately calculate. To complicate matters, parents sometimes disagree about a child’s abilities and disabilities, which can have a significant effect on divorce negotiations. Also, alimony calculations rarely take into account any drop in the custodial parent’s income due to caregiving demands, as well as the cost of needed respite time.
In addition, since children with intellectual and developmental disabilities may require lifelong financial support, their needs throughout adulthood should be evaluated. While relatively few states have laws on the books requiring a parent to support an adult son or daughter, many courts that have considered the question hold parents responsible for supporting adult offspring whose disabilities make ongoing financial support necessary. It is not the disability that is the determining factor, but the son’s or daughter’s ongoing need for financial support that results from the disability. Also, unless the state law clearly imposes a duty to support an adult offspring, many courts will not order support payments unless the court is asked to do so prior to the child becoming emancipated. On the other hand, some states explicitly end parental responsibility at a set age, such as 18, 19 or 21, whether or not the child has a disability.
Whatever the situation in your state, the issue of continuing support into adulthood of a son or daughter who has a disability should be addressed at the time of divorce, since making changes later can be difficult. Even in states with no-responsibility statutes, courts will uphold support commitments contained in the divorce decree.
That said, the son’s or daughter’s lifestyle during adulthood may need to be considered. What sort of education will be pursued after high school? What type of job is he or she interested in? What skills should he or she be developing? Where will he or she live? What will his or her support needs be? And so on.
How Public Benefits Are Affected by Child Support and What Can Be Done About It
While the family’s income may have previously been too high for a minor child with disabilities to receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or Medicaid, that could change if the custodial parent is unable to work outside the home due to full-time caregiving responsibilities. Any SSI received by a child with a disability will not be taken into account when courts establish child support obligations. On the other hand, many courts will factor in the child’s Social Security benefits if they are being paid because of the non-custodial parent’s work record.
While a child is a minor, child support payments are made to the custodial parent. This may result in family income that is too high for the child to qualify for needs-based public assistance. However, once the son or daughter reaches the age of majority, 18 in most states, any child support payments are deemed to be the child’s income, even if still paid to the custodial parent. At the very least, this will reduce, if not eliminate, the child’s potential SSI income and may create issues regarding Medicaid eligibility.
This can be avoided if the support is paid into a self-settled special needs trust (SNT) that is established for the son’s or daughter’s benefit. By doing so, the payments will be income to the trust instead of the offspring’s and will not reduce their SSI. While this type of SNT can be established by the parent or grandparent, in order for the support payment to avoid being treated as the son’s or daughter’s income, there must be an order from a court requiring that the support payments be made into the self-settled SNT.
If paying support payments to a self-settled SNT would best serve the child when he or she becomes an adult, the trust can be established at the time of divorce. The court should then order that support payments be paid into the SNT once the son or daughter reaches the age of majority. The court order can be made either at the time the original divorce decree is entered or later, but it is best that it be made before the child becomes emancipated.
Be aware that using an SNT to pay for certain expenses—such as food or shelter—will reduce SSI benefits. Even if the non-custodial parent pays directly for such items, including utilities, SSI will be negatively affected.
Clearly, the financial implications of public benefits for divorce and child support are complex and outside the experience of many divorce attorneys. For the best results, consulting an attorney who understands special needs planning is important to ensuring that all relevant factors are considered.
The Special Needs Alliance (SNA) is a national non-profit comprised of attorneys who assist individuals with special needs, their families and the professionals who serve them. SNA is partnering with The Arc to provide educational resources, build public awareness, and advocate for policies on behalf of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families.