Child Custody and COVID-19: What to Do If Co-Parents Disagree on the Vaccine

Co-parents who are divorced or unmarried may have a new decision on their plates this summer and in the coming months: whether or not to vaccinate their children against COVID-19. The decision to vaccinate or not has been a divisive topic nationally, and we expect some differences in perspective to feed into child custody discussions between co-parents.

If you and your co-parent disagree on whether or not you should vaccinate your children, there are a few steps you can take to try to reach an agreement or pursue a resolution with the help of an outside source.

Child custody complications: to vaccinate, or not to vaccinate?

COVID-19 vaccines are currently available for children ages twelve and up and clinical trials are underway for children as young as six months old. As parents navigate questions around vaccine administration, there may be differences of opinion based on any number of situational factors.

New Jersey courts tend to favor joint legal custody—which includes the right to make medical decisions about vaccinations for the child—meaning that many divorced, separated, or unmarried parents may need to work together in deciding what to do.

If one parent has sole legal custody, they may wish to discuss their thoughts with their co-parent, but they aren’t legally required to base such a personal decision on an agreement.

Talking about the COVID-19 vaccine with a co-parent

As with any shared medical decision for your child, it can be helpful to give space and time for a thoughtful discussion where both people can listen to the other’s perspective. Certainly, this isn’t a conversation where involving children is required or mandated, but if you have older children, you may get your child’s perspective on whether the vaccine is right for them before attempting to make a decision with your co-parent.

Try to find a quiet, neutral space where you can talk freely and consider doing some research into the question beforehand.

Questions to consider when discussing the COVID-19 vaccine for children

When deciding on whether or not to vaccinate your child, or when deciding which vaccine to pursue, there are several medical and public health resources you can look to.

One great option is to talk with a medical professional you’ve already chosen to trust with your child’s health—their pediatrician.

Your child’s pediatrician should know your child and their medical history and be able to answer questions from you and your co-parent. For many people, having direct answers to their individual questions can be immensely helpful.

Another solid resource is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which employs a vast number of medical professionals and researchers and sets national public health policy. The information on the CDC website is current and can be a helpful additional resource to consult when deciding which groups of people should get the vaccine.

What to do if co-parents don’t agree on COVID-19 vaccination for children

If co-parents have joint legal custody but don’t agree on whether or not their child should receive the vaccine, there are a few steps they can take to try to reach an agreement.

Try to talk it out—is there a way to compromise?

First, try to talk through the matter. If you’ve consulted your child’s pediatrician and the CDC guidelines but still can’t agree, try to break down exactly what each parent’s concerns are.

For instance, if both parents are generally in agreement that adults should be vaccinated, but one parent is concerned about vaccinating their five-year-old, the co-parents could try to compromise by agreeing to wait until a certain number of months after vaccine trials for younger children are complete before pursuing vaccination.

Consider your child’s best interests

Most parents base their decisions on what they believe is in their child’s best interests—and so do the New Jersey courts. Therefore, this is a good check-in point for co-parents in reaching a decision.

Currently, New Jersey K-12 public schools don’t require a COVID-19 vaccine for children to attend in-person classes. However, fourteen colleges and universities in New Jersey, including several public institutions, are requiring students to have the COVID-19 vaccine.

Likewise, it’s also worth considering the health requirements of clubs, sports, and other activities that your child may participate in. These extra-curricular activities can play an important role in children’s emotional and mental health and happiness.

Review your custody agreement

If the question of vaccinating your child becomes an ongoing and unresolved issue between you and your co-parent, you may wish to review your child custody agreement.

As mentioned above, New Jersey courts tend to favor joint legal custody when possible. That said, agreements vary by family, and it’s possible yours may have some nuances that make this decision even trickier. In particular, there are sometimes provisions around medical decisions.

Review the custody agreement on your own or talk with your family law attorney for a more detailed understanding of how it might apply to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Modify your child custody agreement

If you and your co-parent continue to find yourselves at odds over whether or not your child should receive the coronavirus vaccine, it may be possible to modify your child custody agreement—specifically with regards to the COVID-19 vaccine.

As of right now, a judge won’t make a decision about whether or not a child should be vaccinated against COVID-19, but it’s possible for a parent to petition the court and receive the right to make a decision about the child’s COVID-19 vaccination without permission from the other parent.

Another option: participate in post-divorce mediation

Another option for co-parents who don’t agree on whether or not their child should be vaccinated is to participate in post-divorce mediation. Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) where a neutral third party offers guidance and support in helping those involved to reach an agreement.

Mediation is commonly used in divorce and to resolve many other legal matters, including child custody disagreements.

The family law attorneys at Jacobs Berger are trained and highly qualified mediators. We have extensive experience in working with divorcing parties and co-parents to reach mutually agreeable resolutions on all kinds of matters.

Take steps to resolve your child custody concerns and contact us today for a strategic planning session.

About the Author:

Sarah Jacobs is dedicated to protecting the interests of clients in family law proceedings. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, and Qualified as a Mediator, Sarah possesses nearly 20 years of experience practicing law throughout the State of New Jersey. Together with partner Jamie N. Berger, Esq. their boutique Morristown family law firm is managed with the goal of providing high-quality service tailored to each client's individual needs. In her capacity as both a family law mediator and litigator, Sarah works with negotiation-minded clients in a cooperative setting. She is also a skilled litigator with the knowledge needed to take even the most complex cases to court, if necessary.

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