Judges understand the significant impact that a divorce can have on children. Because each case is unique, courts must take steps to fashion child custody and support orders in a way that ensures the child's individual needs are met going forward. Knowing how special education can affect your responsibilities as a parent will help you best prepare for the divorce process in Massachusetts.
If your child has expenses related to his special education needs, this may affect child support in Massachusetts. In determining support, the state starts with a guideline amount that is based on the combined incomes of both parents. However, judges are given the discretion to deviate from this base calculation to account for a child's extraordinary medical needs or educational expenses. For example, the court may order a higher support amount to pay for private tutoring, or to purchase medical equipment such as hearing aids.
A child's special education needs may also play a role in determining custody. In Massachusetts, the courts have wide discretion to ensure that the happiness and welfare of the child is the first priority. The court might look at which parent can meet the child's daily needs such as helping him with his homework and making sure he gets to school on time. The court may also look at what arrangement would minimize disruption in the child's life. This might include considering how close each parent lives to the child's school and each parent's home environment. For example, the court might find that a child would be better able to focus on his schoolwork if he spends more overnights with a parent who lives in a quiet residential neighborhood, as opposed to a parent who resides in a loud urban apartment.
A child's special education needs can also be grounds to modify custody and support in Massachusetts. Once an initial order is in place, the court requires that a parent demonstrate that a change in circumstances has occurred and that a modification promotes the child's best interests. An example might be if the learning disability was unknown at the time of the original order and its discovery resulted in increased expenses and care necessary for the child. The reverse may also be true -- and either parent may ask for a modification if the child no longer needs special education.
Custody orders typically last until a child reaches the age of 18 in Massachusetts. If your child continues to live at home and has special education needs that rise to the level of a disability, you may ask the court to allow you to continue to have decision-making authority and care rights through what is known as a legal guardianship. In addition, child support orders can stay in effect until a child reaches age 23 in Massachusetts, but may be extended indefinitely in cases where a child's impairment is considered a disability.