For couples with a child on the autism spectrum, contemplating or actually going through the divorce process can be especially complex. This is true for two reasons as noted below:
The Issues Surrounding Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are More Complicated
First, the issues involved in caring for child who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are in and of themselves more complicated. Parents of such children need to plan for the long-term in a much more detailed manner than would parents of a mainstream child. Consider for example, some of the following issues:
• Typically, the courts view a child as emancipated when he or she has moved beyond the “sphere of influence” of the parent – typically when they cease being a minor. For children with an ASD however, they may never move beyond that “sphere of influence” and turning 18 or 21 may be immaterial or irrelevant.
• Who will be the guardian for the child, not just for the next decade or two – but possibly for the full extent of the child’s life?
• How will the autistic child’s financial needs be met? Will a Special Needs Trust be established? How will this be funded? Will monies from one and/or both spouses’ life insurance and/or 401K plans?
• How will some very complex decisions concerning the child’s education be addressed?
• Will the child receive all of the necessary speech, occupational and physical therapy he or she may need? Who will pay for this? A child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder will invariably have more expenses than a child without such concerns. Current New Jersey Support Guidelines do not adequately account for such differences.
How are the “Best Interests of the Child” Determined
While acting “in the best interests of the child” remains the guiding principle for the New Jersey courts, determining exactly what this means for an autistic child is much more difficult to assess. For example:
- While custody concerns are always an issue to be resolved whenever a child is involved, transitions for a child with an ASD can be especially difficult. How might such trauma be minimized when a child goes from one parent to the other? Which parent is best for dealing with this issue on a regular basis? With which parent are there more likely to be serious separation anxieties?
- Under even the best of circumstances, determining primary custody of a child can be complex. For an autistic child, it is that much more difficult. Even the most caring of parents may not be well-equipped to deal with the many stressful demands of a child on the autism spectrum.
- What happens when one of the parents truly understands the nature of autism while the other, though well-meaning, does not?
What You Can Do
If you have an autistic child and are considering or in the process of going through a divorce, it is important that you seek the counsel of a family law attorney well-versed in this very specific area of the law. He or she can help you with the many complex issues and with ensuring a fair and just determination regarding financial and other matters. But more important than that, attorneys familiar with the many issues surrounding autistic children is more likely to understand, fight for and obtain decisions that are truly in the best interests of your child.
About Richard C. Klein
Richard C. Klein has both extensive professional experience as well as a personal familiarity with all that’s involved in meeting the needs of children with autism. He has successfully argued in the New Jersey Courts that the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are inadequate for addressing these needs and has advocated vociferously on behalf of many parents of such children.
If you live in New Jersey and require the compassionate support and legal acumen of an attorney who truly “knows” family law as it relates to the autistic child, consider contacting Richard C. Klein at (856) 544-9155.