With the rise in attention to vaccinations accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic as well as increased publicity given to the “anti-vax” movement and vaccine naysayers, disputes over child vaccination may become more prominent in family law matters. The COVID vaccines are currently available for children aged 12 and up and may be made available to younger children in the future, while parents objecting to many vaccines in use for years have become louder voices on social media. One unpublished New Jersey Appellate Division decision may provide important indications about how family courts in the state will handle disputes about child vaccination.
Child custody is one of the most hotly contested parts of many divorces, especially when the parents have a poor relationship with one another or a sharp conflict of views on raising children. In general, the family law system strongly prefers joint custody of the children, including both legal and physical custody. Physical custody relates to where the child lives throughout the year, while legal custody relates to the right to make decisions about the child in terms of education, health care and religion. A family law attorney can provide detailed advice about custody options that may be viable in your case.
In many cases, one parent may have the majority of physical custody of the child, especially if the parents do not live nearby to one another, are required to be in different places for work, or moving between the parents’ homes might impose a difficult burden on the children and parents. Decisions about child custody are guided by the “best interests of the child” standard. This means that even if parents come to an agreement about child custody between themselves, the court may revise or overrule it in family law matters if they believe the best interests of the child are not represented by that agreement.
In most child custody cases, the family court will encourage both parties and their respective divorce lawyers to negotiate an agreement and a parenting plan, if it reflects the best interests of the child. After all, parents will need to implement this plan in the years to come, and an agreed-upon framework is often a strong basis for co-parenting in the future.
A standard joint legal custody framework means that both parents are responsible for decisions about a child’s health care, including vaccines. Parents often ask their family law attorneys what can be done when one parent wants their children to be vaccinated and the other parent does not. In general, the court’s standards for decisions about child care matters are based on the best interests of the child. However, this does not always mean that these decisions reflect a general consensus of doctors and scientists. There are legal exceptions for religious opposition to vaccination, for example. However, even these exceptions are complicated when the parents disagree about whether they want to vaccinate the child, and a court may be asked to make the decision and resolve the conflict.
In the 2020 case of M.A. v. A.A., the Appellate Division upheld a decision made at the trial court level. This decision awarded the father of the child, the plaintiff in the case, sole authority to make decisions about vaccinations, even though the parents had joint legal custody. This decision was based on the best interests of the child standard over the objections of the mother, the defendant, who argued that her right to freedom of religion outweighed the application of the standard.
The lessons of this case may not apply equally to all family law matters, and your family lawyer can assess your unique situation when addressing vaccinations in case of a dispute. In this case, the credibility of the parties was a key factor in the court’s decision. In short, the mother’s testimony about her religious beliefs and objections to vaccination was found to be non-credible, and so her arguments about freedom of religion were dismissed as inapplicable to the case.
The parents in this case divorced in 2018 when their child was 5 years old. Three years before their divorce, although only three months before their separation, both parents submitted a letter to their daughter’s preschool declaring their religious objections to vaccination, and they also both signed a similar letter after their divorce upon their child’s admission to kindergarten. The letter contained a number of religious and biblical references.
However, they did not include any language about vaccination or religion in their marital settlement agreement negotiated by their divorce lawyers. They agreed to joint legal and physical custody of their daughter and included language that indicated both parents had a responsibility to uphold the best interests of their daughter. Later, their daughter suffered an injury and was vaccinated to prevent infection while in her father’s custody. He also took her in for an MMR vaccination.
The mother filed a motion seeking sole custody of their daughter to prevent her vaccination. In response, the father pursued sole decision-making authority for medical matters, saying that the mother was an atheist, did not object to vaccination based on religion and believed in conspiracy theories.
During the trial, the parties presented several expert witnesses, including an expert witness on vaccines presented by the mother and the daughter’s pediatrician. While the mother and her family lawyer said that she had been opposed to vaccination on a religious basis since childhood, she did not seek a religious exemption to her own vaccinations when she immigrated to the United States at the age of 20. Later, she received breast enhancement surgery, something that would have been proscribed by her claimed religious views about altering the body.
The father and his family law attorney claimed that he submitted the letters to their daughter’s schools along with the mother to appease her and that he did not know she opposed vaccination until their pregnancy. He said that he is Catholic and that neither he nor the mother had real religious objections to vaccines. He also said they used a standard text in these letters that would require schools to accept them because they invoked religious belief whose sincerity could not be challenged.
The court decided in favor of the father, ruling that the benefits of vaccination outweighed risks and that receiving vaccines was in the best interests of the daughter. However, the court also ruled that it did not need to decide whether this analysis outweighed the mother’s First Amendment religious objections. Instead, the court concluded that the mother’s objections were not sincerely grounded in religion.
On appeal, the Appellate Division upheld the court’s ruling. It noted that while schools may not challenge a parent’s religious exemption claim on the basis of sincerity, this restriction does not apply to two parents with equal rights to make decisions about the child. The parents had also already agreed that a best interests framework should govern decisions about the child in their divorce agreement.
Not all vaccination disputes are comparable to this case. Parents with sincerely held beliefs may face different decisions at trial. It is important to note that while the dispute arose years after the divorce, the language negotiated by the parties’ divorce attorneys in their settlement agreement formed an important part of the ruling. In addition, joint legal custody decisions can be altered in the best interests of the children. Parents are allowed to change their minds about their moral and religious beliefs and can always seek to change the course of their decision-making, and courts may uphold this as long as it is in the best interests of the child.
If you are dealing with a dispute about vaccination during your divorce or after a child custody order has been issued, a divorce lawyer can help you advocate for yourself and your child. Request your initial consultation with Jeralyn Lawrence at Lawrence Law by calling 908-645-1000 or use our online form.
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