By Amanda Singer
Making and agreeing on medical decisions for a child can be difficult when you’re married, and you may not agree with your spouse on what should be done and only gets more difficult if you’re divorced and trying to come to a consensus on medical decisions. Disagreements over medical decisions can come up for various reasons. While some may have to do with nonemergency elective medical decisions, many can be urgent or life-changing decisions that parents must make. Determining the right decision for your child can not only be difficult but can be made worse if you and your co-parent aren’t effectively communicating about what should or should not happen with your child. If you’re already divorced, hopefully, when you went through the divorce process, you discussed how medical decisions would be made. However, it’s expected that it’s not discussed or at least not discussed in enough detail to ensure that you have a foundation to stand on when something comes up in the future. Most importantly is knowing that if you are struggling with a medical issue and have the time to think about it and discuss it, meeting with a mediator can help you and your co-parent discuss the various issues and determine the right path forward.
Legal Custody and Medical Decisions
It’s important to understand that legally, in California (and most states), whoever has legal custody of the child has the right to make medical decisions. This means that if you and your co-parent have joint legal custody of a child, in most cases, you both have the joint right and responsibility to make legal decisions for the child. This means that one parent cannot make medical decisions unilaterally without discussing them with the other. However, that doesn’t always mean that parents will agree on what should be done. Both co-parenting and medical decisions should be a team effort. Suppose the parents disagree and end up in court. In that case, a judge can judge whether one of the parents should have control over the medical decisions or the specific medical decision that has brought them to court. That being said, judges really don’t like deciding on what medical care a child should or should not receive. Very often, these issues will come up much more quickly than a court can decide, and it’s essential to communicate with your co-parent and ensure that you’re both on the same page. No one is deciding without knowing that the other parent is also on board. Additionally, unless agreed upon differently, out-of-pocket medical costs are usually split equally between the parties. Hence, if there’s going to be a medical procedure that carries a considerable cost, the parents need to be on the same page, so there are no arguments about the price.
Elective v. Non-Elective Medical Procedures
Now, you and your co-parent may agree on all the “big” issues regarding medical decisions like vaccinations, medications, etc. Still, you might find that problems arise when you discuss the difference between what you see as elective or non-elective medical procedures. For example, one parent might feel that something like chiropractic or acupuncture care is vital and necessary to the child’s well-being, while the other parent may not object to it but may not feel that it’s required and may not want to share the cost. As mentioned above, out-of-pocket medical expenses are usually shared equally, so if one parent wants to take them to doctors that might have a higher out-of-pocket cost, it’s important to discuss these procedures and fees before they become an issue. I find that sometimes it can be helpful to separate the procedure or care from its cost to see where the disagreement lies. If you agree that the care is fine for the child, but you differ on how necessary it is and how the cost would be shared, then you may be able to find a way to share the cost in a way that both parents feel comfortable with.
Having a child see a therapist is a medical decision that both parents need to be involved with, and I know that most therapists who see children require consent from both parents before they start working with the child. Now I will say that I believe that all children (in fact, all people) can benefit from working with a therapist, especially when their parents are going through a divorce, but I understand that not everyone may feel the same way about that. However, I often find that when couples disagree about sending the child to therapy, it’s often less about not agreeing on the therapy itself and more about its cost. I know it can be challenging to find therapists that take insurance, especially for children, and those that do often have a very long waitlist. That being said, if you both agree that it’s important for the child to see a therapist, then there are ways to work out and ensure that the cost doesn’t make it prohibitive.
A sub-issue of medical decisions that we’ve seen come up more and more lately relates to vaccines and co-parenting, especially with the recent COVID vaccine approved for children five and up and hopefully coming out for those under five as well. This has caused many disagreements amongst co-parents who disagree on whether to vaccinate their children. Now, this article isn’t about whether you should or should not vaccinate your child (I have my own opinion on that, which isn’t relevant to this discussion). Still, it is about how you decide whether to vaccinate them or not and what to do when you both disagree on which way to go. While many vaccines are required for attending school, which may quiet the issue for some parents until the COVID vaccine is required for school, it falls into an area where parents may disagree on whether to vaccinate. Absent one parent having sole legal custody to make that decision. Both parents will have to work together to determine what the right decision is for them. You may consider many factors when determining the right answer, and if you and your co-parent don’t communicate well, it can be challenging to reach a solution.
Call West Coast Family Mediation Center at (858) 736-2411 regarding co-parenting and medical decisions. Mediation can be beneficial if you and your co-parent disagree on medical decisions for a child or want to discuss potential issues before they arise. Contact us for more information.