Matters of child custody are both legally complex and fraught with emotion, but when a child in a custody dispute has special needs, decisions on custody become an even more demanding challenge to resolve. Deciding on child custody and finding common ground on a parenting schedule for a child who may have a complicated weekly routine for therapies or medical appointments, or who may require a great deal of equipment, can be challenging. Juggling the logistics of raising a special needs child with the natural desire of both parents to spend as much time as possible with their child is further compounded by the often increased need for routine in children with disabilities.

Deciding on custody for children with special needs in California means both physical custody, and legal—or decision-making—custody, which for children with special needs includes crucial decisions about medical care and education.

Understanding Special Needs in Children

When a child has a physical, cognitive, learning, or emotional disorder, they are described as having “special needs.” The special needs they require could be physical assistance or equipment, medical procedures to address a condition, health problems, learning disorders, cognitive impairment, or emotional problems. Federal law defines special needs children as kids with any of the following:

  • Learning disorders
  • Speech/language impairment
  • Health impairment
  • Autism
  • Mental retardation
  • Hearing or visual impairment
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Multiple disabilities

Because California courts place the best interests of a child as their highest priority, and children with special needs often require great investments of time, attention, resources, and commitment, the courts take many factors into consideration before making rulings on child custody and parenting time/visitation schedules.

What Do Courts Consider When Deciding Custody for Kids With Special Needs?

With the best interests of children as the primary goal, the courts consider the following questions when determining the custody of children with special needs:

  • The amount of time each parent typically spends with the child
  • Which parent addresses more of the child’s daily needs?
  • Which parent is better equipped to manage medical needs for the child?
  • Which parent is better able to handle the child’s behavioral, mental health, or emotional needs?
  • Which parent typically manages the child’s medical appointments, therapy appointments, and special education requirements.

Finally, courts may also consider the child’s wishes for older children and teenagers.

The Importance of Consistency For Kids With Special Needs

In California, divorcing or unmarried parents are given an opportunity to come to mutually agreeable terms for deciding custody on their own rather than leaving the decision in the hands of a judge. This is always the best option, but even more so for parents of children with special needs who know their child’s unique requirements better than anyone. Whether choosing 50/50 custody or primary physical custody for one parent and visitation for the other, there are many simple schedules offered by the courts such as:

  • Alternate weeks
  • Alternate weeks with one mid-week overnight with the other parent
  • The 2-2-3 parenting schedule
  • Primary custody with one parent plus one mid-week dinner and every other weekend with the other parent

For children with special needs who require a great deal of equipment and/or home health care, some parents consider a “bird’s nest” custody arrangement, where the parents jointly rent a small second home and then each parent spends their parenting time in the primary home with the child while the other uses the second home. Then the parents switch places, with the child remaining in the primary residence without a disruption to their location or routine.

A Los Angeles family attorney can help you with questions about child custody in California, including the legal and physical custody of children with special needs.