By: Beth C. Manes, Esq., Manes & Weinberg, LLC
Our practice areas frequently overlap. Parents of special needs children face many challenges, not just during their marriage, but also upon its dissolution. In addition to the added financial stress of specialized activities and services, parents also find themselves juggling schoolwork assistance, driving to and from appointments with specialists, managing difficult and oftentimes aggressive behaviors, all underscored by chronic worry about their child’s medical, academic and social progress, and potential future. Parents very often do not agree on educational, medical, and other decisions impacting their child. We have assisted many family law practitioners navigate this complex situation by providing the following services:
- IEP Review/Mediator: Many children have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and 504 Plans, to provide special education and related services, as well as modifications and accommodations to help them learn. Frequently, parents do not agree with each other about what is best for the child educationally. We can review the documentation, provide an opinion, try to get the parents on the same page, and help advocate with the school district if necessary. Alternatively, we can conduct mediation between the parents to help them overcome an impasse that is preventing their child from moving forward with a meaningful education plan.
- Special Needs Consultant: Our firm has provided guidance to many family law practitioners who have a client with a special needs child in terms of issues that may be relevant to custody, and/or explaining the child’s school programming and needs. We have also referred practitioners to educational experts when parents are unable to agree upon a school placement for their child. Finally, we have reviewed Family Court motions to ensure the appropriate legal terminology is being utilized.
- Guardianships and Contested Guardianships of Children: When children turn 18, they are considered adults in the eyes of the law. This means they can make their own educational, medical, and financial decisions, unless a guardian is appointed. The process should be fairly simple, and we can sometimes coach a client through the forms and court procedures so that they do not need to hire a lawyer. However, sometimes, it turns into another custody battle, this time in Surrogate’s Court. We often serve as co-counsel with family lawyers to manage these cases.
- Guardianships of Litigants: As you know, given S.T. v. 1515 Broad Street, LLC, a Family Court judge cannot simply appoint a GAL to act on behalf of an alleged incapacitated litigant, but rather the parties must utilize the R. 4:86 guardianship process. Family lawyers often turn to us to explain the process to their clients, and then file a guardianship complaint.
- Court Appointed Attorneys/GALs: We can be a great resource when the Family Court is asked to appoint a GAL for a child with special needs. We work with many educational and health (including mental health) providers for children around the state. We have advocated in school districts in almost every county.
- Special Needs Trusts: When a child turns 18, child support is deemed income to him/her. If that child will need to qualify for public benefits (i.e., SSI, Medicaid, Division of Developmental Disabilities Services), there is an asset and income limit that must be maintained in order to ensure eligibility. We often consult with both parents, and are retained jointly, to draft Special Needs Trusts in order to protect the child’s eligibility.
If you have any special needs related questions, we are happy to answer them, and brainstorm your options. Sometimes a few minutes on the phone with us can save you a significant amount of time, and help you navigate unfamiliar areas of the law into which your matrimonial matter has veered.