The divorce process can become even more complicated when spouses have children with special needs in Virginia. Deciding how the necessities of a special needs child will be addressed, whether medical, developmental, or psychological, can be complicated to decide going forward. Additionally, divorce also creates challenges in creating a visitation schedule for a spouse who will not have full custody of their special needs child going forward – the “non-custodial” parent. Normally, visitation schedules in these cases are finalized either through settlement or mediation by the former spouses, but if a visitation schedule cannot be agreed upon, the court will have the sole discretion to create a final schedule. In light of this, it is important for both spouses to do their best to create and agree on a final visitation schedule so that they can maintain the most control over their visitation rights. When creating a visitation plan, it is important to account for the differences that arise between divorcing parents, your child’s specific needs, and providing stability for the child going forward.

Set Aside Your Differences

     In any divorce, it is common for spouses to harbor feelings of hurt and anger that can negatively impact level-headed decision making. Special needs children are especially vulnerable to the tension that can take place between their parents during a divorce, so going out of your way to be collaborative, supportive, and mindful when creating a visitation plan protects your interests as a parent while also protecting your child’s well-being throughout the process. When both parents can set aside their differences, a visitation plan that benefits the child, as well as both parents, has a better chance to be created.

     A good visitation plan allows freedom for parents to collaborate with one another, but also contains strict provisions should a parent violate the order or create issues with the agreement. For example, one day, a parent may see that their child would benefit from an additional night of visitation with the other parent. If the visitation plan was created with a collaborative effort from each parent, the plan will be flexible enough to allow what would be best for the child in this case – having the flexibility to remain at that parent’s home for an additional night. Of course, setting aside differences is not always something that will happen in divorce proceedings, especially when children are involved. In these cases, reaching out to a therapist that specializes in co-parenting to act as a mediator can be very beneficial while also allowing both parents to collaborate on creating a solution. Tailoring a Visitation Plan to the Child’s Needs

     Before collaborating with the other parent about a visitation plan, both parents need to individually list out what they foresee will be the most important considerations for creating the plan in regards to their child’s specific special needs. Some children with special needs only have minimal considerations to be met, while others have a wide array of specific daily necessities that require a great deal of care and planning to be provided properly.

     When parents create a visitation plan, it is important that major aspects of the child’s ongoing needs are factored into the specific provisions of the agreement. Some of these include:

  •  The child’s daily and long-term challenges.
  •  The child’s diagnosis and treatment plan.
  •  Which parent is better equipped to meet the needs of the child.
  •  Which parent would be most beneficial to the child from more frequent care.

     Some of these points to consider can be highly contentious points of discussion, but they are nonetheless crucial to creating a visitation plan that benefits the child and allows both parents to have an active role in their child’s life.

Value Stability

     Special needs children thrive on predictability, routine, and stability – especially when it comes to their residential placement. Too much back-and- forth between parents’ homes can overwhelm the child and create issues in other areas of their life, especially when these transitions take place frequently within the first year of divorce. Often times, it is better for the child to be predominately housed with one parent while also visiting the other parent throughout the week for shorter visits. For example, allowing the child to visit their non-custodial parent for dinners, homework help, religious services, and other short-term visits throughout the week is a great way for the child to spend time with their non-custodial parent while also being able to keep a regular routine.


     Regardless of the visitation plan, working with your former spouse to create a plan that puts the well-being of your special needs child above all else is crucial for the long-term success of the child, as well as your ability to maintain control over who is involved in creating the plan in the first place. Regardless of the many factors that must be considered when making the plan, maintaining a collaborative attitude is crucial so that the most optimal plan can be made for all parties involved.

     If you would like assistance in creating a visitation plan for your child, please call one of our offices at 804-325-1245 (Richmond) or 757-941-4298 (Williamsburg) to discuss your options. One of our attorneys can meet with you by zoom, phone, or in-person meeting.

     Smith Strong, PLC can also create an estate plan, including a will, trust, and special needs trust for you to ensure your inheritance to your special needs child does not disrupt their government benefits. To learn more, attend our free workshop or estate planning by calling 804-325-1245 or


Special Thanks to Brayden Meadows for his assistance with this article.

H. Van Smith
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Trusted Virginia Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg