Take the High Road

“We will stay together for the sake of the kids”.

Words spoken often by couples whose marriage is on the rocks. They choose to remain married in order to provide a stable environment for their children. The question of whether this is a wise decision is a topic that we can address in a future blog. But today, we explore the ongoing responsibility of the non-custodial parent.

When we are given a special needs child … by chance or by choice … the family unit is changed forever. As a special needs parent we know this is a bumpy road fraught with slippery slopes and deep potholes. Many marriages have survived, and even thrived, on this challenge. Many others have not. Some blow up early. Others sustain (for better or worse) until the child is grown. That is when the breakup occurs.

Recently I have seen a number of marriages break up after their special need child reaches 18 years old—the legal age of majority. In these cases, it is the father who has left and the mother retains custody and responsibility for their disabled child (who is now an adult). This brings to mind the question about the ongoing responsibility of the father (or non-custodial ex-spouse) in terms of involvement in the child’s life and future financial support. The answer involves both legal and moral components.

What is the law regarding the support of a disabled child following their age of majority (generally 18 years old)? Apparently rules differ by state. Some rules are founded in the common law and others are based on a specific statute (law). The issue is complicated and since we all are located across the country, there is no set answer to offer here. Instead, I found this article that does a great job of explaining the rules on a state by state basis. If you are affected by this situation, put this on your MUST READ list. http://www.childsupportguidelines.com/articles/art200003.html. Another source of information is this list provided by the National Conference of State Legistlatures which identifies the Age of Child Support Termination by State Exceptions for Adult Children with Disabilities. http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=16411

Regardless of the legal requirement, what is the moral obligation of a divorced parent to remain engaged in their special needs child’s life and to provide continuing financial support once they are an adult?

For me, the answer is complicated and raises some questions.

Are both parents legal guardians? Does a situation exist where the child’s contact with the non-custodial spouse might cause potential emotional damage or even physical danger? Is the residual post-divorce relationship of the couple sufficiently civil that they can rationally co-parent the child?

Not knowing the answer to these questions, I would cast my support to the spouse who retains responsibility for the child. This is the person that should make the judgment call. My reasoning is that since this parent is challenged with the child’s long-term care, then they are best positioned to know what is in the best interest of the child. And if the custodial parent is given the opportunity to make this call, they must resist the temptation to let bitterness and resentment affect their decision-making process. If the custodial parent can’t be objective, they should seek out trusted counsel from someone that can objectively assess the situation and advise the optimum course for the benefit of the child.

As a man and father of a special needs child, I tend to hold other fathers to a high standard.

I am a firm believer that parenting is a life-long responsibility. A man’s physical absence from the home does not excuse him from his responsibilities … including both remaining an active, involved, caring father AND providing whatever financial support that child needs to live a happy, healthy life.

If you are the father of a special needs child contemplating a divorce and you are faced with these decisions, I urge you to Take the High Road and fulfill your parenting responsibility.


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