Case Proves There Are No Easy Answers When It Comes to Divorce and Children with Special Needs

A recent decision by a Minnesota appeals court illustrates the often difficult intersection of special needs planning and divorce law.

When Timothy and Jean Hanratty divorced in 2001, the court ordered Mr. Hanratty to pay Mrs. Hanratty $2,000 a month in child support for the care of their adult child with disabilities, T.J.H. (A court ordered that T.J.H. live with his mother when he turned 21 several years prior to the divorce.) In 2009, T.J.H. moved into a group home that cost $6,500 a month; Mrs. Hanratty contributed the entire monthly child support award towards the cost of T.J.H.'s care and the county medical-assistance program paid the balance of the cost.

Mr. Hanratty asked the court to terminate his child support obligation based on a change in circumstances. Mr. Hanratty claimed that the child support payments were not needed since T.J.H. no longer lived with his mother and the state would pay for the entire cost of T.J.H.'s care in the group home if T.J.H. did not receive child support payments. The trial court refused Mr. Hanratty's request and he appealed.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision, finding that Mr. Hanratty did not demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances, despite T.J.H.'s change of residence. The court explained that in a previous case addressing a similar issue, "this court noted that because 'the primary obligation of support of a child should fall on parents rather than the public,' it is inappropriate to terminate a support obligation on the ground that the obligee now receives public assistance."

The Hanratty case, like many divorce actions, has no clear winners or losers. But it does serve as a reminder that when it comes to divorce and a child with special needs, it pays to think through that child's future care when contemplating a settlement. In many states, parents are required to provide child support for children with special needs well past the typical age of majority. In Mr. Hanratty's case, this support obligation could very well last for the rest of his son's life. While we don't know the circumstances behind Mr. and Mrs. Hanratty's divorce, it may have been necessary to evaluate T.J.H.'s future medical prospects while drafting a child support order, and, in any case, both parents should have been aware that Mr. Hanratty's support obligation would not end if T.J.H. obtained state care.

In fact, in many cases child support payments can ruin a child with special needs' access to other important government benefits, like Supplemental Security Income, because the payments, like here, are considered unearned income. If you or a family member is working through a divorce, make sure that your special needs planner is involved. It could make life for everyone just a little bit less contentious.

Article Last Modified: 05/29/2011