5 Reasons Why Special Needs Parents Are More Likely to Divorce

Kid daughter feels upset while parents fighting at background.

  • The stress and challenges of raising a child with special needs can negatively impact your marriage.
  • Determining child custody is an important part of navigating divorce. 
  • You and your co-parent are expected to work together to provide the best life possible for your children, whether or not your child has special needs.

Marriage and parenting children are hard work. Both relationships require time, focused effort, and sacrificial giving—often when you least feel like it.

Parents of a special needs child (or children) experience these same stressors and more. Time becomes a precious resource and exhaustion can negatively impact important relationships.

Studies have shown that parents of special needs children are statistically more likely to divorce. Are there commonalities in these marriages that can put them in such a vulnerable position?

As it turns out, parenting a special needs child includes several unique stressors. While these reasons aren’t able to capture the nuances of each marriage and family, there are some common themes.

Understanding the Unique Challenges

In 2010, a study11. Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Seltzer, M. M., Floyd, F., Greenberg, J., Orsmond, G., & Bolt, D.. The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Family Psychology. ;24(4), 449–457. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019847 examining the divorce rate among parents of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder found that parents of these special needs kids were more likely to divorce than those in the control group (23.5% vs 13.8%). 

Additionally, the study found that the rate of divorce remained high throughout the affected child’s life, as compared to a decreased risk after age eight in neurotypical families.

We know that there are a variety of challenges in parenting a special needs child. How might they impact the relationship between the child’s parents?

1. The Emotional Rollercoaster

Frustrated little school boy feeling depressed while angry parents fighting at home.

Many parents of kids with special needs report experiencing a variety of emotions22. What do educators need to understand about families of children with disabilities?. IRIS Center. https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/fam/cresource/q1/p02 as part of everyday life. These include anger, guilt, joy, grief, boredom, pride, worry, loneliness, and others. 

Riding this rollercoaster of emotions is draining for even the most resilient parent. Add in the emotions of parenting other children and obligations like work, and you’ve got one tapped-out parent.

No wonder parents can find it hard to meaningfully connect with each other.

2. Constant Caregiving Stress

Annoyed young parents sit on couch in kitchen tired from loud two little children running playing.

Children with special needs vary widely in their physical health and mental health needs. Many times, though, the need for close monitoring or round-the-clock care remains consistent.

Without breaks, caregivers have fewer opportunities to care for themselves, making them more likely to experience burnout.

Whether one parent shoulders the majority of caregiving while the other parent works outside the home or an alternate arrangement, resentment and guilt can build for both spouses.

Each may perceive that the other has an easier job in providing for their child with special needs.

3. Financial Strain

Debt problems

Each family manages the cost of care for their children differently.

Some families choose to have one spouse employed outside the home, while the other works as a full-time caregiver to the child who needs extra care. Other families see both parents working outside the home, and a community agency or family member steps in as the care provider for their child.

Either way, money can feel very tight, which makes tempers and patience short.

4. Lack of Couple or Personal Time

Tired mother and father sitting on couch feels annoyed exhausted stressful with little girl child.

This is a particular stress when it comes to life with a special needs child. 

The days are often filled with appointments like physical therapy, speech therapy, educational programs, and doctor’s appointments—all given in love for our children to help them reach their potential and be their healthy best.

The downside, though, means less time and energy to invest in other children in the family or our spouses. 

5. Differing Parenting Philosophies

Stressed young married family couple arguing emotionally.

Experts at the Child Mind Institute33. Garey, J.. Conflicts Over Parenting Styles. Child Mind Institute. 2023. https://childmind.org/article/conflicts-over-parenting-styles report that it can be helpful for parents to have differing opinions or philosophies on raising children. An important part of growing up is learning how to be respectful of all kinds of ideas—especially when they’re different than yours.

However, when parents have serious disagreements in front of their children or are unable to work together, children (whether or not they have special needs) tend to become anxious and confused.

This vicious cycle can further fuel tensions within the family and lead to marital breakdown.

Divorce and Special Needs Children

The decision to divorce is seldom an easy choice. This fact is particularly true with medically complex and special needs children.

There is far more to consider than creating a parenting time schedule.

Consulting a divorce attorney familiar with family law (and, ideally, the care and rights of special needs children) is an important part of the information-gathering process that generally occurs when divorcing parents consider their options.

Legal and Custodial Terms

Young couple arranges guardianship of little girl.

As you interview and prepare to work with a divorce attorney, it’s helpful to have a working knowledge of the following terms:

Co-parent/co-parentingYour former spouse/the process of parenting with your former spouse.
Custodial parentThe parent that lives with and cares for the child all (sole) or most (joint or primary) of the time.
Non-custodial parentThe parent who, most of the time, does not live with their child or children. These parents may see their children through a set or mutually agreed upon schedule.
Legal separation/separate maintenancePartners remain legally married but live apart. The rights of the legally married/living apart spouses may differ based on the degree of separation and where they live.
Physical custody Refers to the day-to-day activities, welfare, and decision-making activities for the child.
Legal custody The “authority and responsibility for making major decisions regarding health, education, and welfare of the child.”
Joint custodyThis involves both physical and legal custody, where “each parent has a degree of control over and a measure of responsibility for a child.” 
Visitation schedule/parenting time scheduleRefers to a set or mutually agreed-upon schedule where the noncustodial parent spends time with the child. This time may or may not include overnights, depending on your situation.
Parenting plan“Establishes how divorced parents will share the responsibilities of childrearing and decision-making with regard to the child. Generally, parenting plans must be agreed to by the parents and approved by the court.”
Child supportMonies paid by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent for a child’s basic living expenses (such as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and education.)
Spousal support/spousal maintenance/ alimony“Refers to the financial assistance and monetary support provided from one former spouse to another after divorce.” Many times, the requesting spouse must be unable to support themselves post-divorce without financial support from their ex-spouse to qualify.

Knowing these terms and their meanings equips you to ask good questions when meeting with your attorney and participating in the decision-making process.


Divorced parents with their son visiting lawyer.

As a part of your divorce, you will likely meet with your former spouse, the lawyers for both parties, and a judge to discuss custody arrangements. 

Usually, custody arrangements happen in one of four ways:

Sole physical custodyOne parent (custodial parent) makes the day-to-day decisions for the child or children of the parents.
Sole legal custodyOne parent (custodial parent) makes the major decisions for the child or children of the parents. The custodial parent may or may not choose to seek input from the other parent.
Joint physical custodyBoth parents work together to make day-to-day decisions for their child or children.
Joint legal custodyBoth parents work together to make major decisions for their child or children. In the event the parents are unable to reach a mutually agreeable decision, a formal process will be identified to resolve the conflict.

Each divorce is unique and has nuances specific to that family and situation, which will affect custody arrangements. For example, a custodial parent may have sole physical custody and share joint legal custody. 

Co-parents are expected to work together towards providing a stable future and promoting the overall health and well-being of their child or children, whether or not they have special needs.

Financial Care 

Spouses couple signing decree papers getting divorced in lawyers office.

A special needs or disabled child relies upon several different means to ensure adequate funding for all aspects of their life and care.

These financial arrangements may include:

  • Portions of their parents’ salaries, given after divorce in the form of child support payments.
  • Government benefits or specific programs for medically complex or special needs children.
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI1111. Understanding Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Overview — 2024 Edition. Social Security Administration. https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-over-ussi.htm), including in-kind support (ISM1212. Nicholas, J.. Source, Form, and Amount of In-kind Support and Maintenance Received by Supplemental Security Income Applicants and Recipients. Social Security Administration. 2014. https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v74n3/v74n3p39.html).
  • Special Needs Trust. This program1313. What Is a Special Needs Trust?. MetLife. 2022. https://www.metlife.com/stories/legal/special-needs-trust allows a qualifying individual to receive financial support and still be eligible for federally-funded benefits. 

Generally speaking, when parents divorce, you and your former spouse are expected to share medical expenses for your children.

Child support payments and financial arrangements for adult children with special needs may need to be re-examined once your child reaches legal adulthood.

Medical Care and Services

Close up of African-American psychologist taking notes on clipboard in therapy session for children.

An important part of the divorce process is making financial arrangements to continue established care for your child with special needs. 

Share a detailed list of your child’s medical therapies, developmental or support services, medications, and physicians with your divorce attorney. Be sure to include:

  • Who provides these services.
  • Who is currently responsible for paying for these therapies.
  • Which parent (or agency) carries the insurance for your special needs child. Include Social Security disability benefits, government benefits, or specialized federal programs for medically complex children. 
  • How often your child receives these services (weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.).
  • Any other helpful information.

In addition to collaborating with a family law attorney, it may also be wise to consult with a lawyer who specializes in special needs law to advocate for your child’s special needs or unique circumstances. 

This attorney can represent or advocate for your special needs child, in the hope that your child can receive the full extent of financial support and benefits to which they are entitled.

The unique stressors and challenges of raising a child with special needs can strain even the strongest marriages. Even with professional help and focused efforts to heal your marriage, one or both parents may choose to divorce. Viewing your co-parent as your business partner can help you work together to make decisions that are in the best interest of your shared child or children. 


  1. Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Seltzer, M. M., Floyd, F., Greenberg, J., Orsmond, G., & Bolt, D. (2010). The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(4), 449–457. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019847
  2. What do educators need to understand about families of children with disabilities? IRIS Center. (n.d.). https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/fam/cresource/q1/p02
  3. Garey, J. (2023, October 30). Conflicts Over Parenting Styles. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/conflicts-over-parenting-styles
  4. Custodial parent. Cornell Law School. (2021, June). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/custodial_parent
  5. Legal separation. Cornell Law School. (2023, July). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/legal_separation
  6. Joint custody. Cornell Law School. (2020, June). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/joint_custody#:~:text=Joint%20custody%20is%20an%20arrangement,of%20responsibility%20for%20a%20child.&text=Joint%20legal%20custody%20means%20both,and%20welfare%20of%20the%20child.
  7. Joint custody. Cornell Law School. (2020, June). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/joint_custody
  8. Parenting plan. Cornell Law School. (2020, July). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/parenting_plan
  9. Child support. Cornell Law School. (2022, July). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/child_support
  10. Alimony. Cornell Law School. (2021, November). https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/alimony
  11. Understanding Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Overview — 2024 Edition. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-over-ussi.htm
  12. Nicholas, J. (2014). Source, Form, and Amount of In-kind Support and Maintenance Received by Supplemental Security Income Applicants and Recipients. Social Security Administration. https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v74n3/v74n3p39.html
  13. What Is a Special Needs Trust? MetLife. (2022, November 16). https://www.metlife.com/stories/legal/special-needs-trust
Reasons Why Special Needs Parents Are More Likely to Divorce

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