After a divorce, parents often disagree on some of the big issues facing their children as they grow. Some of the biggest disputes can happen over medical decisions, including whether to vaccinate. Now, with COVID vaccines approved for children 12 and over, parents all over New Jersey are facing a vaccination decision before school begins in the fall. So, what happens when parents disagree about vaccinations?
New Jersey Legal Custody Disputes
In some cases, New Jersey courts can compel one parent to cede to their co-parent's wish to vaccinate, even if they disagree. In many cases, New Jersey parents share joint physical and legal custody over their children, meaning they share parenting time, and they must make decisions about their children's medical choices jointly. When parents disagree on major decisions, they can ask the court to step in.
A good example of how courts make these decisions is the case of M.A. v. A.A. See No. A-1493-20 (N.J. Super. June 30, 2021). In that case, the parents divorced in New Jersey in 2018, sharing joint physical and legal custody of their daughter, who was born in 2013. In their marital settlement agreement (MSA), both parties agreed that “their daughter's best interest is paramount.” However, the MSA didn't address vaccination or religious beliefs, and it failed to describe how the parties would resolve disputes regarding a medical emergency.
Before the parties divorced, they jointly submitted a vaccine exemption form to their daughter's preschool based on their stated religious beliefs. They submitted a similar form to the local board of education for their daughter after their divorce. However, in 2019, after stepping on a rusty nail, the daughter received the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine and had no adverse reactions. Parent one advised parent two about the vaccine. A few weeks later, when parent two and the child were to travel out of the country, parent one objected because they hadn't fully vaccinated their child. Although parent one filed a motion to prevent parent two from taking the child out of the country, the court denied it because the couple had previously vacationed out of the country with their unvaccinated daughter. But when the daughter returned, parent one took her to the doctor for follow-up vaccinations without parent two's knowledge. Their daughter developed a rash on her back.
The Vaccine Dispute
In response, parent two filed for sole custody of the daughter and moved to enjoin parent one from vaccinating their child in the future, claiming a religious objection. The court denied the motion to enjoin further vaccines and appointed parent one as “the limited medical guardian of vaccinations for their daughter.” The court held that having parent one make this decision alone was in their daughter's best interest and that the benefits of vaccines outweighed any potential risks. The court also held that the parent opposing vaccination wasn't sincere in her religious objection and lacked credibility.
While courts will mandate vaccinations in some situations, ruling in favor of vaccination isn't a hard and fast rule. Rather, the New Jersey family courts will decide the best interests of the child, considering the facts and circumstances of each case. If you're involved in a New Jersey custody dispute, call attorney Joseph D. Lento at 888-535-3686. Or contact the Lento Law Firm online.