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Special Needs Children and Child Custody Agreements

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Child Custody – How a Legal Paraprofessional Can Help

At De Novo Law, we specialize in tackling cases involving child custody for special needs children. This article offers insights into the implications of a special needs child turning 18 and the importance of special needs trusts as well as various other topics. 

Our Legal Paraprofessionals offer a distinct approach compared to traditional family law attorneys. Paraprofessionals are licensed to provide legal services in family law, including complex child custody cases involving special needs children.

They differ from attorneys in their focused expertise and the ability to offer more accessible and affordable legal support.

If you are dealing with child custody matters involving a special needs child, De Novo Law offers a free initial consultation to help you determine the best course of action.

We will cover the following topics:

Child Support in Special Needs Child Custody

Child custody cases involving special needs children in Arizona require careful consideration, especially regarding child support. 


Key Considerations in Calculating Child Support

  • Arizona Child Support Guidelines: While these guidelines provide a standard framework, they are adapted to accommodate additional costs like extraordinary medical expenses, special education, and care needs specific to the child.
  • Extraordinary Expenses: Medical care, therapy, and specialized education or care for the child significantly impact the child support calculation.

Modifying Child Support

  • Evolving Needs: Child support arrangements can be adjusted to reflect changes in the child’s needs or parents’ financial situations.
  • Court Intervention: Parents can request court intervention for modifications to the support order to address these changes.

Developing an Effective Custody Schedule for a Special Needs Child

In Arizona, the Smith family’s custody schedule for their 10-year-old daughter Emily, who has autism, is a model of consideration for special needs.

During weekdays, Emily stays with her mother, Mrs. Smith, who resides near Emily’s special education school and therapy center. This arrangement ensures minimal disruption to Emily’s routine, important for her well-being.

On weekends, Emily spends time with her father, Mr. Smith, ensuring she maintains a strong relationship with both parents. This balance allows Mr. Smith to actively participate in Emily’s care and routine, fostering a nurturing environment for her.

The Smiths alternate holidays and vacations, adapting their schedule for unforeseen changes, such as adjustments in therapy sessions. Their flexibility and communication are key, especially when coordinating around Emily’s medical and educational needs.

This schedule is regularly reviewed and adjusted in consultation with healthcare and education professionals, reflecting Emily’s evolving needs.

The Smiths’ collaborative approach, prioritizing stability, flexibility, and Emily’s best interests, exemplifies effective co-parenting in a special needs custody arrangement.

Joint legal custody of a special needs child in Arizona, under the guidance of Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS), demands careful attention to the child’s unique requirements.

 ARS §25-403 prioritizes the child’s best interests in legal decision-making, while ARS §25-410 addresses emergency healthcare decisions, a critical aspect for special needs children.

Additional Considerations and Potential Issues

  • Education Plans: Joint legal custody requires parents to collaboratively decide on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or 504 Plans, which may lead to disagreements on educational approaches or therapies.
  • Adjustments to Routine: For special needs children, consistency in routine is key. Transitions between households can be challenging, requiring parents to establish a stable environment in both homes.
  • Financial Responsibilities: Additional costs associated with the child’s care, like therapies, medications, and specialized equipment, must be equitably shared, often leading to disputes over financial obligations.
  • Parental Disagreements: Differences in parenting styles or opinions on medical and educational decisions can create conflicts, necessitating mediation or legal intervention.

Handling Challenges in Joint Legal Custody

  • Mediation and Legal Support: In cases of disagreement, ARS §25-402 recommends mediation. Parents may also seek legal counsel to ensure fair decision-making.
  • Adapting to Changes: As the special needs child grows, their needs may evolve, requiring adjustments to custody agreements and shared decision-making strategies.


Joint legal custody of a special needs child in Arizona involves complex considerations beyond standard custody arrangements.

Challenges such as coordinating education plans, managing financial responsibilities, and addressing routine disruptions require parents to work collaboratively and sometimes seek external support.

Understanding and Utilizing Special Needs Trusts in Custody Cases

In custody cases involving a special needs child, establishing a special needs trust is essential for the child’s long-term financial well-being.

This type of trust is specifically designed to handle the expenses of raising a child with disabilities without affecting their eligibility for government benefits like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

A special needs trust is a legal arrangement where assets are held and managed by a trustee to benefit a special needs individual. It’s crafted to provide for additional needs that are not covered by government assistance, including specialized medical care, educational needs, and personal care. 

In the context of custody cases, these trusts offer a structured way for both parents to contribute financially to their child’s care.

They ensure that funds are specifically used for the child’s benefit, offering clarity and accountability in financial contributions. 

Parents are encouraged to collaboratively establish the trust, often with the guidance of legal experts in special needs planning. This ensures the trust is compliant with both state and federal laws and serves the child’s best interests.

Transitioning to Adulthood: Custody and Support When a Special Needs Child Turns 18

As a special needs child in Arizona approaches the age of 18, changes can occur in custody and support arrangements.

At 18, the child is legally considered an adult, impacting existing custody orders and child support obligations.

However, for special needs individuals, reaching adulthood often doesn’t negate the need for continued parental support, both financially and in terms of care.

Key considerations during this transition include potential guardianship if the child cannot make decisions independently. Parents may need to legally establish guardianship to continue making important decisions for their child.

Additionally, decisions regarding adult living arrangements become pertinent, whether the child remains at home or moves to a specialized care facility.

Financial support also undergoes changes. Parents might have to modify child support agreements to better suit the child’s adult needs. Moreover, transitioning to adult government benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid requires planning to ensure uninterrupted support.

Establishing or continuing a special needs trust is important for providing necessary financial support without affecting the child’s eligibility for government aid. Parents should also explore suitable vocational and educational programs to support their child’s abilities and interests in adulthood.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1: What does “best interest of the child” mean in the context of a child with special needs?

A1: The “best interest of the child” standard in family law considers the unique needs of a child with special needs, including their health, emotional development, and education. It requires that custody decisions prioritize the child’s specific needs, ensuring their overall well-being.

Q2: How is physical custody determined for a child with special needs?

A2: Physical custody refers to where the child lives. In cases involving a child with special needs, the court will consider the child’s medical needs, daily care requirements, and routine stability when determining physical custody arrangements.

Q3: What should a parenting plan include for a special-needs child?

A3: A parenting plan for a special-needs child should outline specific routines, medical care plans, educational arrangements, and any necessary therapies. It should be detailed and flexible to accommodate the child’s evolving needs.

Q4: Are child support payments different when a child has special needs?

A4: Yes, child support payments may be adjusted to address the additional expenses a child with special needs may incur. This can include therapy, special education, and medical expenses.

Q5: Can a parent get full custody if their child requires special care?

A5: Sole custody may be granted if it’s in the best interest of the child, especially if one parent is better equipped to handle the child’s special needs. However, Arizona courts generally prefer arrangements that allow the child to have meaningful relationships with both parents.

Q6: What considerations are made for visitation schedules for special needs children?

A6: Visitation schedules for special needs children often require more structure to maintain routine and stability. They may need to account for the child’s therapy sessions, medical appointments, and other unique requirements.

Q7: How do custody matters differ when an older child with special needs is involved?

A7: For an older child with special needs, custody matters might focus more on long-term care planning, transition to adult services, and guardianship issues, alongside their ongoing medical and educational needs.

Q8: What challenges do parents of children with special needs face in custody battles?

A8: Parents of children with special needs may face challenges in demonstrating their ability to meet the child’s special requirements, disputes over medical decisions, and managing the financial burden of care.

Q9: In custody decisions, how are a child’s educational needs considered?

A9: The child’s educational needs are a crucial factor in custody decisions. This includes the choice of school, special education services, and any necessary accommodations or therapies.

Stephanie Villalobos, LP

How a Legal Paraprofessional Can Help

Legal Paraprofessionals like Stephanie Villalobos at De Novo Law offer a new dimension of legal assistance, especially in family law matters involving custody and support for special needs children.

Licensed by the Arizona Supreme Court, they can provide legal services and court representation, making them a cost-effective alternative to traditional attorneys. Their expertise is particularly valuable in complex family law cases, where they can offer guidance and support throughout the process.

For those interested in exploring this option, De Novo Law offers a free one-on-one consultation.

You can contact them at (480) 725-2200 or visit their contact page to schedule a consultation and discuss your family law needs. This consultation provides an excellent opportunity to understand how a Legal Paraprofessional can assist you, especially in cases involving special needs children.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice.  De Novo Law, LLC and its Legal Paraprofessionals are not attorneys and are not authorized to provide legal advice or representation beyond the areas and scope of practice for which license is held.  The transmission or receipt of any electronic correspondence or information does not create a legal paraprofessional-client relationship.


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