April is Autism Awareness Month, a time to promote understanding, acceptance, and support for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and their families.  We recognize the unique challenges that families with children on the spectrum face, particularly when it comes to legal matters such as divorce and estate planning. In this article, we will explore some key considerations for these families to ensure their legal and financial security.

Divorce Considerations for Families with Children with Autism

Divorce can be a difficult process for any family, but it can be especially complex when it includes a child with autism. Here are some considerations for families in this situation:

  1. Child Custody and Visitation:  Stability and routine are crucial for children with autism. When determining custody arrangements, it is important to consider the child’s specific needs, including their therapy schedule, educational requirements, and any other support services they receive. A parenting plan that minimizes disruptions to the child’s routine and reduces the amount of transitions between households can be beneficial.  
  1. Child Support:  Children with autism may have additional expenses related to their care, such as therapy, specialized educational services, and medical costs. These should be taken into account when calculating child support to ensure that the child’s needs are adequately covered.
  1. Communication:  Effective communication between parents is essential for coordinating the care of a child with autism. Divorcing parents may need to establish clear guidelines for sharing information about the child’s progress, medical appointments, and any changes in their needs.  

Estate Planning Considerations for Families with Children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder

Estate planning is crucial for all families, but it’s particularly important for those with children on the autism spectrum. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Special Needs Trust:  A special needs trust can be a valuable tool for ensuring the financial security of a child with autism spectrum disorder. It allows parents to set aside funds for the child’s care without affecting their eligibility for government means-tested benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and to use the funds for a broad range of ways to supplement their children’s public benefits.  
  1. ABLE Account:  An alternate and/or supplement to a Special Needs Trust is a Maryland ABLE Account.  These accounts are tax-saving accounts designed for individuals with disabilities and their families.  Like Special Needs Trust, these are designed to allow funds to be set aside for the child’s care without affecting their eligibility for means-tested benefits.  While ABLE accounts allow for tax savings, there are certain limitations that are presented with ABLE accounts that are not presented with Special Needs Trusts.   It is best to speak with a  trusted professional about these options and which option, or combination of options, would meet your child’s and family’s needs.  

3.   Guardianship:  As children with autism reach adulthood, parents may need to consider guardianship to continue making legal and medical decisions on their behalf. It’s important to start this process before the child turns 18 to ensure a smooth transition.

4.   Estate Planning Documents:  Ensure that your will and power of attorney, are up to date and reflect your wishes for your child’s care. Consider naming a backup guardian in case the primary guardian is unable to fulfill their role.

Families with children on the autism spectrum face unique legal challenges, particularly when it comes to divorce and estate planning. By considering the specific needs of the child and seeking the guidance of experienced legal professionals, families can navigate these challenges and ensure the well-being of their loved ones.

At Oliver Leffler Law, we are committed to providing compassionate and knowledgeable support to families with children on the autism spectrum. Contact us to learn more about how we can assist you with your family law and estate planning needs.