How Does Child Custody for Special Needs Children Differ? | Indiana Special Needs Child Custody Attorneys

At Mattox & Wilson, our experienced Indiana child custody attorneys have successfully represented countless clients in child custody cases, each unique in its intricacies. But when it comes to children with special needs, there is an added layer of complexity that must be delicately navigated.

For over two decades, we have helped parents with disabled and special needs children successfully obtain favorable child custody outcomes. If you have a special needs son or daughter and need assistance with a child custody matter in Indiana, we invite you to call our office to schedule a consultation to learn more about your legal rights and options.

special needs child playing with a toy

Why Is the Child Custody Process Different for Special Needs Children?

Each year, countless couples go through the emotional ordeal of divorce. For those with children, it is an even more challenging experience. The situation becomes especially delicate when parents have a child with special needs.

The following are just a few reasons why the process can differ significantly for families with special needs children:

  • Best Interests of the Child. The primary standard in any Indiana child custody case is the “best interests of the child.” For special needs children, determining their best interests often requires more specialized considerations. Their physical, emotional, and educational needs might differ significantly from those of other children.
  • Medical and Therapeutic Needs. Special needs children may require frequent medical care or therapeutic sessions. Courts will consider which parent is better equipped or more willing to manage these appointments and treatments.
  • Educational Requirements. Many special needs children may have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or other specialized educational arrangements. The ability of a parent to advocate for the child’s educational needs and ensure they are met is a crucial consideration.
  • Consistency and Routine. Children with special needs often thrive on consistency and routine. The court may consider which parent can best provide a stable environment that aligns with the child’s needs.
  • Financial Considerations. The cost of care for special needs children can be significantly higher than for other children. This might impact decisions related to child support, insurance, and other financial responsibilities.
  • Expert Testimony. In cases involving special needs children, the court might give more weight to expert testimony. Professionals who understand the child’s specific needs can provide insights to help the court make informed decisions.
  • Sibling Relationships. The presence of siblings and their relationships can be especially vital for special needs children. Courts might consider how custody arrangements affect these sibling bonds.
  • Parent’s Understanding and Advocacy. A parent’s willingness and ability to understand the child’s special needs, advocate for them, and ensure they get the required support can influence custody decisions.
  • Long-Term Planning. Special needs children might require care and support well into adulthood. Courts might consider which parent is better prepared for long-term planning, including guardianship considerations, financial planning, and more.

Due to these unique factors, parents of special needs children in Indiana often benefit from consulting with attorneys who have experience in both family law and the specific challenges associated with special needs care. It ensures that the child’s well-being remains the top priority throughout the custody process.

How Does Legal Custody Work in Indiana?

Indiana law is explicit when it comes to legal child custody. Parents can either share joint legal custody[1] or one can have sole custody. For the parent with legal custody, they hold the right to make pivotal decisions pertaining to a child’s major medical care, educational choices, and religious upbringing.

Why Is Legal Custody Significant For A Special Needs Child?

Being New Albany child custody attorneys, we have observed firsthand how legal custody becomes even more crucial for a child with special needs. Such children often require immediate medical attention or educational decisions. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it requires nearly $240,000 to raise a child, but this cost can quadruple for children with special needs.[2] The legal custodian thus has a heavy responsibility – from choosing the right doctors to placing the child in specialized education programs.

Furthermore, the custodian has the authority to decide the child’s school district. And given that many schools, under state and federal law, are obligated to accommodate and support children with special needs, this decision becomes paramount.[3]

What Are The Challenges Of Joint Legal Custody?

While joint legal custody may sound ideal, it has its set of challenges, especially when the child has special needs. Disagreements might arise, leading to court interventions. Given the rapid decisions often required for children with disabilities, this can delay essential support, which is not always in the best interest of a child.

How Does Physical Custody Differ For Special Needs Children?

In Indiana, the “best interest of the child standard” is the guiding principle for physical custody. Yet, what works for a typical child might not be suitable for a special needs child. Equal parenting time and frequent transitions might unsettle children with conditions like autism, who often crave predictability.

What Additional Factors Are Considered For Special Needs Children?

Numerous considerations come into play when determining physical custody for a child with special needs. These range from factors such as the transition of specialized equipment and transportation logistics to the familiarity with third-party providers and the environment of each parent’s home.

Another critical factor is the provision of spousal maintenance in Indiana. Specifically, if a special needs child requires constant care from one of the parents, that parent might be eligible to receive spousal maintenance for the duration of the child’s disability. This represents one of the few scenarios in Indiana where a divorcing party might be mandated to pay spousal maintenance indefinitely to the opposing party dedicated to the child’s care. As experienced New Albany child custody attorneys, we recognize and emphasize the importance of every nuance and detail to ensure the best interests of your child are upheld.

How Can We Ensure The Best Outcome For Our Special Needs Child?

Our primary advice as New Albany child custody attorneys is cooperation. When parents work together, it simplifies and benefits the process. But if disagreements arise and court intervention becomes necessary, it is essential to present comprehensive evidence about the child’s needs, be it school records or individualized programs. Remember, the priority is always the well-being of the child.

In our time serving the parents in New Albany and the surrounding communities, we have continually emphasized the importance of understanding and compassion, especially in cases involving children with special needs. At Mattox & Wilson, we strive to guide our clients through the process, ensuring that every decision made prioritizes the best interests of their child. Call us today to schedule a consultation to learn more about our representation in special needs child custody matters.

[1] IN Code § 31-9-2-67 (2017).

[2] The Cost of Raising a Child, U.S. Department of Agriculture,

[3] Special Education, Indiana Department of Education,

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