Navigating any disagreement regarding minor children, whether the parents are in an intact family/relationship or otherwise, can be disconcerting and exhausting on the best of days. Couple that with an uncharted global pandemic, differing guidance on vaccination effectiveness from the professionals, which seems to change almost daily, along with a split family dynamic, and the complications exponentially increase.
We’re not there just yet, but the day is likely fast approaching when both governmental entities and the pharmaceutical industry begin recommending the administration of COVID-19 vaccinations for individuals under the age of sixteen; our precious children.
When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine and divorced parents, many complications can arise. What happens when Mom and Dad fundamentally do not view the impacts of COVID similarly or just simply do not agree as to immunization of their child, and therefore cannot jointly decide whether to vaccinate their children against COVID-19? This is where the allocation of decision making and parental responsibility is key for divorced or separated parents. Single parents in Florida will first need to look at their Parenting Plan to determine if one of them is permitted to break a deadlock on whether or not to administer the COVID-19 vaccination to their minor children.
COVID-19 Vaccine and Divorced Parents: What You Should Know
Parental Responsibility in Parenting Plans
Parenting Plans in Florida have three (3) distinct elections for parental responsibility and decision making between co-parents: Shared Parental Responsibility, Shared Parental Responsibility with Ultimate Decision Making Authority, and Sole Parental Responsibility. It is imperative to first understand which form of parenting you have and the nuances surrounding each designation.
If you have been designated in your Florida Parenting Plan, either entered by agreement or determined by a Judge, with Shared Parental Responsibility, then you both make all decisions for your children, equally and jointly. Neither parent has more of a say over the other in any major decision, which includes the vaccination of your children. You are both required to discuss with one another whether your child should receive the vaccination and if you cannot agree, then the issue should be presented to the Court so that the Judge can break the deadlock between the two of you. After hearing your respective arguments and evidence as to what each of you believe is in your child’s best interests, the Court will decide what is in the best interests of your precious child. A court proceeding of this nature is not cut and dry, and you may be required to present expert medical testimony on the COVID-19 vaccination predicament and specific evidence as to your child’s medical circumstances.
If you have Shared Parental Responsibility but one of you is designated with ultimate decision making authority as to medical decisions for your child, then all of the same rules above apply, except that the parent designated with the ultimate decision making authority gets to make the final decision as to whether the child or children receive the vaccination. This will likely avoid court involvement, as either you or a Judge has already decided, in formulating the Parenting Plan, which parent has the final say in the event of a failure of both parents to agree on this major aspect of parenting.
Sole Parental Responsibility is a designation that is reserved for very specific factual circumstances, most often involving domestic violence, child abuse, or severe parental drug or alcohol use/abuse. If one of the parents has been designated with Sole Parental Responsibility, then there is no requirement to discuss the vaccination topic between co-parents and the parent with Sole Parental Responsibility is free to proceed with either vaccinating their child or refraining from doing so, irrespective of the co-parent’s perspective or preference.
The guidance in this article is extremely important for those parents who have children outside of the bounds of a lawful marriage. For those women who have given birth to a child and were not married to the father of the child or to any person at the time of the birth of the child, under Florida law the mother presumptively has Sole Parental Responsibility until a Parenting Plan is entered by the Court or signed by the parents which states otherwise. In this particular circumstance, the mother of the child can legitimately and unilaterally determine whether or not the child will receive the COVID-19 vaccination without taking Dad’s perspective or preference into consideration at all.
Try To Talk It Out First
Make sure that you have effectively communicated with one another on the subject of whether or not your child or children should receive the COVID-19 vaccination before you attempt to obtain legal solutions from a Court. Any legal battle is expensive, grueling, and often overwhelming. Do your best to really listen to one another. This is a topic, unlike so many that would have arisen between you, upon which neither of you can really be “right” or “wrong”; this decision is truly is about perspective and experience. Remember that even if you lived as an intact family, you would likely still disagree on this choice and would be forced to find common ground without legal remedies being instituted. You should also try to remember that neither of you actually have the answers on this, and neither of you have a crystal ball to conclusively know that the effectiveness outweighs potential risk or vice versa. Perhaps your co-parent may make a valid point that sways your choice. What research have you delved into? What was the source and accuracy of the information upon which your choice is based? Does your child have any special needs or medical history that should be considered? Will your child’s pediatrician weigh in on the decision? Have any close friends or family suffered with long-term health effects (or worse) after contracting COVID-19? Will travel become a realistic opportunity for your child if he or she is vaccinated? If the conversations are not productive at first, think about utilizing a licensed psychologist or co-parenting coordinator to help moderate these discussions and decisions.
If you are not yet officially divorced but are attempting to negotiate and finalize a Parenting Plan, this may be a specific topic that you want to include in your Parenting Plan now to avoid a disagreement post-final order. If you are agreeing in writing to vaccinate your children then consider including the preferred vaccine manufacturer, whether booster vaccines are agreed upon, or who/where/how the vaccine will be physically administered to the child. What if this circumstance comes up with another pandemic or World Health Emergency? The more details you include, the less room there is for dispute in the future. Disputes are costly, either financially, emotionally, or both.
What Do I Do if My Child Receives the Vaccination Without My Consent?
If this occurs and your Parenting Plan provides for Shared Parental Responsibility, this is truly problematic. The bell cannot be un-rung, not even by a Judge. Although you will be unable to obtain legal relief that will effectively withdraw the vaccine from your child’s body, if your co-parent has completely disregarded your perspective and your clearly stated objection, and has vaccinated your child absent your consent, such may be grounds to seek to modify your designation of Shared Parental Responsibility and pursue Shared Parental Responsibility with ultimate decision making authority on medical matters, or even sole parental responsibility in egregious cases. There may be other punitive relief available depending upon this circumstance.
The important thing to take away from the past year is that now, more than ever, communication and flexibility are critical in effective co-parenting. You should do your best to ignore any personal issues you may have with your co-parent and be as objective as possible. Your child’s best interests must be at the forefront of all decisions you make. What is done today could affect the remainder of your child’s life.
If any of the issues above rise to the level of requiring court intervention, be sure to consult with an experienced family law attorney with a practice dedicated to this particular area of the law.
Natalie Kay is a Partner at Kelley Kronenberg, focusing her practice on Family and Marital Law. www.kelleykronenberg.com