The availability of vaccinations for children has created a renewed focus on a fundamental question of divorced or unmarried parents – what do you do when parents disagree on medical care for their child? For example, what happens when one parent wants to vaccinate the child, but the other parent refuses? Setting aside the vaccine question, what happens when parents disagree on what school district to send the child to? Or disagree about what religion to raise the child in? These are fundamental questions about how separated or divorced parents raise their child which have always existed but have garnered a renewed focus and attention with the availability of the COVID vaccine and the issues surrounding the COVID pandemic. So, we will analyze the question under this context.
Who does my custody order give authority to?
Answering the question first requires looking to the custody order itself. You may have a custody order which gives one parent sole authority to make medical decisions. In this case, the parent with the authority gets to make the final decision. However, this case is fairly rare, and most parents have “joint legal custody.” Thus, answering the question requires a primer on the joint legal custody principles. Joint legal custody simply means both parents have an equal right to participate in “big picture” decisions involving the child’s education, medical care, religious instruction, etc. The Iowa Code defines “joint legal custody” as follows:
“Legal custody” or “custody” means an award of the rights of legal custody of a minor child to a parent under which a parent has legal custodial rights and responsibilities towards the child. Rights and responsibilities of legal custody include, but are not limited to, decision making affecting the child’s legal status, medical care, education, extracurricular activities, and religious instruction.” Iowa Code §598.1(5).
On a fundamental level, joint legal custody puts both parents in an equal position to dictate these issues. But, this also means neither parent can overrule the other when there is a disagreement. Many people believe the parent who has physical care has a trump power and gets to break any ties when there is a disagreement. This misconception has been furthered by attorneys who misunderstand the complex nature of joint legal custody and even some courts who have misapplied the legal custody principles over the years.
Despite the misconceptions, the standard is clear: joint legal custodians have equal power, and neither parent has a superior right to dictate these issues. What that means is neither parent can force the other to consent to the vaccine or, in the alternative, neither parent can prohibit the other from getting the child vaccinated. This leaves a logistical stalemate.
If both parents cannot agree on what is best for the child, do they have to go to court again?
To resolve the stalemate, court intervention is necessary. Certainly, parents are encouraged to work together and determine what is best for their child without resorting to court involvement. However, when there is a legitimate impasse, the only available option is to let the court decide. In all issues involving the custody of child, the court retains the final decision-making power to dictate what is in the “best interests” of the child.
In determining the “best interests” of the child in the context of the COVID vaccine, the court will look to a number of factors including any special health risks of a child, the reasons the parents either advocate or object to the vaccine, the opinions of any medical providers for a child, etc. So, if you are a parent advocating for the vaccine, it is important to have a discussion with your child’s physician. If you oppose the vaccine, it is important to have a clear reason for such objection. Ultimately, the Court will make a decision and either order the child be vaccinated or prohibit the parents from vaccinating the child.
Although less common, the court has similar authority to determine other issues where the parents cannot agree, such as where the child should attend school, which extracurricular activities the child should engage in, what religion the child should grow up in, etc. Because these are fundamental questions affecting the child’s life, it is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney if you are facing one of these questions.
WHERE CAN I FIND THE BEST ATTORNEY TO HELP ME WITH MY LEGAL MATTERS?
As always, the lawyers at Vriezelaar, Tigges, Edgington, Bottaro, Boden & Lessmann Law Firm are centered on providing exceptional legal services to the people of Siouxland and the surrounding area. The attorneys pride themselves on being first-rate advocates, ensuring their client’s rights and interests are protected and each voice is always heard. Using their knowledge, expertise, and over 240 years collective experience, they aim to deliver the best results possible for their clients.
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