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Medical Care Decisions and Divorce

Most people who receive vaccines are underage children who rely on their parents to make medical decisions for them. When parents disagree on whether to vaccinate their child, frustration and arguments can follow. And when a vaccination argument gets wrapped up in a divorce and all the other related legal complications, it can make it very hard for parents to find common ground.

So, what happens when separated or divorced parents can’t agree about essential medical care decisions such as immunizations? In this article, we’ll talk about how courts treat these disagreements and give an overview of your rights and options.

North Carolina Laws Regarding Vaccines

You may have noticed news about vaccinations (or the lack of them) hitting closer to home over the past year. In November 2018, a school in Buncombe County made national news when at least 36 students became infected with chickenpox. As reported by The Daily Tar Heel, this was one of the worst outbreaks in North Carolina since 1995. The outbreak occurred at a private school with one of the highest religious exemption rates for vaccinations in the state.

Stories like this may make you wonder what North Carolina law has to say about vaccines. Before a vaccination dispute with your ex-partner or divorced spouse escalates to the courts, it’s important to understand state law and how courts may apply the law in your case.

According to North Carolina law, children may not attend school (whether public, private or religious) or a childcare facility unless they have received all immunizations appropriate for their age. However, state law allows for two types of exemptions from the vaccine requirement:

    • Medical exemption

      If a doctor who is licensed to practice in North Carolina certifies that the required vaccines could harm the child based on certain known and accepted medical factors, then the child isn’t required to receive the vaccines for as long as the relevant medical factors continue. To get the exemption for the child, the doctor must fill out a specific form from the Department of Health and Human Services.

    • Religious exemption

      Parents whose deeply held religious beliefs conflict with the vaccination requirements can’t be forced to vaccinate their children. No official form exists for requesting religious exemptions in North Carolina. To claim a religious exemption, the parent requesting the exemption for their child must write a statement explaining their religious objection to immunizations, including the name and date of birth of the child. Then, the parent must provide this statement to any schools, camps, or childcare facilities that the child attends. The statement doesn’t need to be signed by a religious leader, notarized, drafted by a lawyer, or reviewed by any authority.

Our state does not allow for any exceptions to vaccination requirements based on personal or philosophical beliefs. So, parents who hold anti-vaccination views that aren’t based on religious convictions cannot receive an exemption for their child based on those beliefs.

RELATED BLOG ARTICLE: Can I Move Away With My Child During a Custody Case?

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How Do N.C. Courts Resolve Vaccination Disagreements?

So, what do North Carolina courts do when separated or divorced parents disagree over vaccinations and can’t resolve the issue on their own? Several different paths are possible, but in general, the judge must always make their decision based on the child’s best interests. How the process plays out will depend on your custody status.

  • If you have sole legal custody of your child, you’ll have the final say on vaccinations. However, the child’s other parent could petition the court to modify the custody order if they strongly disagree with your decision. The likelihood of the other parent preventing your decision in this scenario depends on the history of the case and why you ended up with sole legal custody to begin with.
  • If you share joint legal custody of your child and can’t come to an agreement with the other parent, you have three options:
    • One option is to go to the judge. Judges don’t like making these kinds of decisions, but in some cases, it’s the only option. The judge will have to determine what would serve the best interests of the child, which may require input from the child’s pediatrician.
    • A second option is to attempt mediation. This would still require you and the other parent to reach an agreement. Although it might seem like there’s no room for compromise at first, you may be able to find a middle ground. For example, you might agree to a vaccination schedule that’s spread out over time compared to the traditional administration schedule.
    • A third option is to go to binding arbitration. In an arbitration proceeding, a qualified family lawyer hears the evidence and reaches a decision much as the judge would do. This option is usually the quickest of the three, but you and the other parent will be responsible paying the costs.

If your child is older, the judge may ask the child whether they want to receive vaccinations and take their answer into account. Even if the judge does talk to your child, the child’s position is only one factor among many the judge will consider. There’s no set age for when a judge will talk to a child, but the judge must determine that the child is old enough to understand the nature of the decision. The older the child, the more weight the judge will give to their input.

No matter how much you want to avoid going to court, there are some areas where you may feel you can’t compromise, and vaccinations may be one of them. If the other parent wants to take a path with your child’s medical treatment that you believe places your child in harm’s way, then you may have to draw the line and fight. If the disagreement reaches this point, then you should contact a family law attorney who can fight aggressively in court to protect your child.

Myers Law Firm: Protecting Parents’ Rights in Charlotte, North Carolina

If you and the other parent can’t come to an agreement regarding vaccinations or you have concerns about your child’s custody order when it comes to vaccines, our experienced family law team at Myers Law Firm is here help. We’re committed to protecting your rights and serving the best interests of your child.

To schedule your initial consultation, please call our Charlotte office toll-free at 1-888-376-ATTY (2889) or contact us online using our online contact form.


N.C. exemptions. (n.d.). North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.immunize.nc.gov/schools/ncexemptions.htm

N.C. immunization requirements. (n.d.). North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.immunize.nc.gov/family/nc_immnz_requirements.htm

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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