Divorced parents and health care: What if we don’t agree?
Parents who are going through or recently divorced and raising young children will likely find they do not agree with the other parent about every parenting decision. In some situations, it is easy enough to compromise and move forward. But what if neither parent is willing to back down? What if both parents are so passionate about the issue that they refuse to compromise?
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a very relevant example. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that vaccines are widely accessible and encouraged everyone over the age of 12 to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The agency has also stated it hopes to have the vaccine available for middle and elementary school children in the near future. Not surprisingly, many parents have very strong feelings about letting their children get this vaccine. Some feel strongly that it is an important step to ensure their children’s health as things start to open back up after the pandemic while others have concerns about the speed with which the vaccine was rolled out. This is just one medical question that can lead to opposing views. Parents may disagree about the need for a surgical procedure or even whether or not a child should get braces. So what happens when each parent is firmly on an opposite side of the issue?
The answer is essentially the same whether the health care issue at hand is to get a vaccine, surgical procedure, mental health screening, or dental work. The answer likely lies within the divorce decree or separation agreement.
Lesson #1: The language of the divorce decree is very important
Divorce is, at its roots, the end of the legal contract that made up the marriage. Both parties must agree to another contract to end the marriage. That contract, the divorce decree, will dictate how the parties answer future questions — like disagreements about health care decisions for the children.
The importance of this document cannot be understated. Take the time to make sure you understand all the provisions before you sign the divorce document. Negotiate better terms if you do not agree. Rushing through this process will increase the risk of bigger problems in the future.
Lesson #2: The best interest of the children will likely prevail
In order to answer this question it helps to understand how the court approves proposed child custody orders. To do this, the court generally looks at the best interest of the child. This legal standard can involve a whole range of considerations. The relationship of the child with each parent, the likelihood the parent will encourage a positive relationship with the other parent and the health and welfare of all involved are some examples.
The court would then use this analysis when granting custody. The details will vary by state. In Utah, two forms of custody are used: legal and physical. Physical refers to where the child lives and legal refers to which parent can make important decisions for the child, like those involving health care. The court could grant complete custody to one parent, referred to as sole custody, or require the parents to work together in a joint arrangement.
If a parent has sole legal custody, they can generally make health care decisions for the child without the other parent’s input. If joint, it is likely both parents must agree. If they do not, one could file an order with the court and take the issue to litigation. This would likely result in each parent bringing experts to explain the benefits and risks of each option to help the court make an informed decision.
Lesson #3: Nothing is final
Parents can modify divorce orders. One of the reasons the court offers that can result in a modification is a change to the child’s health care needs, so this scenario could provide a reasonable reason to review and modify existing child custody orders.