Possible Options When Parents Disagree on Medical Decisions for Their Child
It’s Essential for Parents to Find A Solution Regarding Medical Decisions That Work for Everyone Involved While Keeping the Child’s Best Interests at the Forefront
Going through a divorce with minor children is often a difficult time for everyone involved. When it comes to navigating the new journey of co-parenting, some parents consciously or subconsciously look for opportunities to engage in conflict and “beat” their soon-to-be former spouse. Underlying differences in values and viewpoints, which may have contributed to the demise of the couple’s relationship in the first place, can also manifest in conflicts over parenting decisions during and after a divorce.
Unfortunately, making medical decisions for a child can easily become a part of the divorce battlefield. When disagreements arise between divorcing or divorced parents over a medical decision for a child, the opinions of each parent tend to be (or become) deeply held. Though each situation is unique, it is also not uncommon for one parent’s opinion to be in line with the child’s primary care provider or the mainstream medical community at large and the other parent’s opinion to be against the advice of the child’s primary physician, in agreement with a physician who holds a different opinion, or in opposition to the mainstream consensus within the medical community. These types of decisions can relate to vaccines, administration of prescription drugs, dietary restrictions, gender-affirming care, consent to medical procedures or surgeries, reproductive care, and even psychiatric care.
So, who makes the ultimate decision? The answer depends on whether or not the parents share legal custody of the child, the details of the parents’ custody agreement, and/or what the court determines to be in the best interests of the child.
Resolving Custody and Medical Decision Issues Among Parents in NJ
There are two types of custody that a parent can have over a child: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to the right to make major legal and medical decisions for a child. If two parents have joint custody of their child, then they have equal rights to make major decisions for their child. Each of them can independently consent to more minor medical decisions, but both parents must consent to major medical decisions.
If a parent has visitation rights but does not have any legal custody over the child, then they do not have the right to make medical decisions for the child or try to block or veto medical decisions made by the child’s custodial parent. One exception to this can arise in the case of an emergency. The parent with physical possession (not necessarily custody) of the child can make any decisions necessary to render care during the emergency.
Even when parents share joint legal custody, their individual custody agreement may dictate which parent has ultimate decision making power in a certain area. This may include medical decisions. However, not all custody agreements specifically state which parent has the final say. Furthermore, if the couple is currently going through a divorce, then they probably do not have a custody agreement at all specifying such details. In the absence of an agreement providing clear decision making power, the court may need to get involved to rule on the matter.
Ensuring the Child’s Best Interests are Safeguarded
When parents disagree about a medical decision for their child, sometimes the court must step in to make a decision for them. The court’s authority to do so is based on the legal principle of parens patriae jurisdiction, which holds that the state has a role and right in determining and protecting the best interests of a child. This principle not only gives the state the right to be a tie-breaker, so to speak, on medical decisions that parents cannot agree on, but it also gives the state the right to order that a completely different decision be made, if it finds that decision to be in the best interests of the child.
Now, judges are lawyers, not doctors. When determining the best interests of a child in a medical context, the court will rely on the opinion of medical experts. Generally speaking, the court’s decisions on these issues tend to align with the mainstream medical consensus on an issue at the time of the ruling.
Think Ahead and Build a Strong Parenting Plan
When a couple with children decides to divorce, the change in relationship frequently impacts their parenting in unexpected ways. Parents with children born into a marriage do not typically contemplate spending holidays away from their child. They also don’t contemplate the idea that a medical decision could be made for their child that they fundamentally and adamantly disagree with. Ideally, parents will be able to communicate and agree on medical decisions for their child(ren) without involvement from the court, but this is not always possible. To prevent such disputes in the first place, a comprehensive parenting plan and a custody agreement that is drafted to enforce the plan is crucial.
If you are going through a divorce, one of the many issues you need to take into consideration and plan for is how you and/or your spouse will make medical decisions for your child(ren). While perhaps, right now, you cannot imagine what medical decision would create a major conflict, you can probably imagine that such a conflict could easily leave you feeling concerned, anxious, and out of control. Whether a conflict is caused by two differing medical opinions from doctors or involves opposing viewpoints of the parents on vaccines, gender-affirming care, or any other medical decision, parents in New Jersey find themselves at odds with their child’s other parent on these important issues every day.
Having a parenting plan that you and your spouse create collaboratively that clearly sets forth how medical decisions will be made and who will have the final say provides a predictable framework to navigate these issues in the future and considerably reduces the potential for conflict, which can have a damaging impact on everyone, especially the child.
Get a Brick NJ Family Lawyer’s Counsel for Your Dispute over a Child’s Medical Decisions
An experienced New Jersey family law attorney at The Bronzino Law Firm can help you develop a parenting plan that encompasses all of these important issues and ensures that your custody agreement will enforce the plan. If you are currently involved in a dispute with your current or former spouse regarding a medical decision for your child in Wall, Eatontown, Oceanport, Asbury Park, Toms River, Middletown, Berkeley, Lacey, Lavallette, and other communities in Monmouth and Ocean County time is of the essence, and it is important to get the advice of a family lawyer right away. Contact our office by calling (732) 812-3102 to set up an initial and free-of-cost consultation with our attorneys.