Typically, when parents get divorced, they tend to focus on who will receive physical custody of the children. While it's certainly important to determine who your child will live with, legal custody is just as important as physical custody.
Physical custody refers to where the child lives and who is responsible for their day-to-day care. Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make important decisions on behalf of their child. These decisions may include choices related to the child's education, medical care, religious upbringing, and other significant life decisions.
In Washington state, parents most often have joint legal custody, with one parent having primary physical custody. However, the court may award sole legal and physical custody if there is a history of child neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse, or other serious issues that could risk the child's safety.
Potential Disagreements Over a Child's Medical Care
Although medical providers can offer guidance regarding treatment options, there are many situations in which divorced parents could disagree about the best course of action. Some common examples include:
- Vaccinations. One parent may want the child to receive vaccinations, while the other parent may be opposed to them. For example, some parents are against having their children receive COVID-19 vaccinations because they don't believe the benefits outweigh the potential risks.
- Surgery. One parent may believe surgery is necessary to address a medical condition, while the other may prefer to pursue alternative treatments or less invasive forms of care.
- Medications. One parent may want the child to take a specific medication, while the other may be concerned about potential side effects or interactions with other medications. ADHD medication and antidepressants are two common areas of dispute.
- Mental health treatment. One parent may believe the child needs to see a therapist, while the other may disagree. Often, parents disagree about the diagnosis, with one parent believing the child has a mental health condition and the other believing the child's behavior is simply a phase or the result of external factors.
Making Medical Decisions During an Emergency
Although shared legal custody means you are generally required to consult your former spouse regarding medical decisions involving your son or daughter, notification is unnecessary in a medical emergency. Falls, burns, broken bones, allergic reactions, seizures, and other issues require immediate treatment—and any delay in care could have serious consequences for a child's health.
In the event of an emergency, either parent may make the necessary decisions without consulting the other parent. If your child requires emergency medical care, you should obtain treatment and notify your former spouse of the situation as soon as you are able to do so.
Resolving Disputes Over a Child's Medical Care
Whenever possible, you should work with your former spouse to make medical decisions for your child. If you can't resolve the dispute on your own, mediation may be an option to consider. Mediation services are less expensive than litigation and can help you avoid putting your child in the crossfire of an emotionally charged situation.
When you're unable to reach an agreement with your former spouse despite your best efforts, the court may intervene to resolve the dispute. The court will make a decision that is in the child's best interests, considering factors such as the child's medical history, the opinions of medical professionals, each parent's abilities to care for the child, and any other relevant information.
Before making a decision, the court may appoint a neutral third party, such as a guardian ad litem (GAL). The role of a guardian ad litem is to gather information about the child's medical needs, including reviewing medical records, speaking with medical professionals, and meeting with the child and parents. The GAL will then make a recommendation to the court based on what they believe is in the child's best interests.
Ultimately, the court will issue an order that will be binding on both parents. This decision may include ordering a particular medical treatment, appointing one parent to make medical decisions for the child, or ordering further evaluation of the child's medical needs.