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Who Makes Medical Decisions When Parents Have 50-50 Joint Custody?

For parents with joint legal custody of children, there are a lot of parenting decisions that need to be made. Co-parenting can be tough, even in amicable divorces. When parents are not on the same page but share 50-50 custody, medical decisions can be a big source of conflict.

As a general rule, if decisions about the child’s medical care are not covered in the child custody order or parenting agreement, then parents should discuss the options and come to an agreement together. This is sometimes easier said than done.

If you and your ex-spouse cannot come to an agreement, there are different routes you can take to legally make a decision. It may be wise to talk to an experienced child custody lawyer so that you understand all the options fully, or if you are concerned your child is in danger.

In the event of an emergency, when the child is physically in your care, you have the right to make medical decisions that are in the child’s best interests. You need to let the other parent know as soon as possible.

Legal Custody Vs. Physical Custody

There are two different types of child custody in cases involving separated parents: legal and physical custody.

Physical custody refers to a parent’s right to care for a child who is physically present. For example, a child may spend weekends with one parent per the physical custody arrangement. This can be shared custody or a primary/secondary arrangement.

Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make major decisions about the child’s welfare. This means making decisions about education, health care, and other activities that are in the child’s best interests.

In general, North Carolina courts prefer to award final decision-making authority for legal custody to one parent in order to reduce conflicts that could be detrimental to the child. However, joint legal custody is still recognized as an option for parents when determining a custody arrangement.

Unless one parent has sole legal custody, co-parents are usually required to at least attempt to agree on major decisions. If a joint decision cannot be reached, the judge may say that one parent makes all major decisions, or that one parent may make the decisions about things like education, and the other parent make the decisions about medical care. Joint legal custody can look different based on what the judge believes is best for the child based on the family’s circumstances.

RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Joint Custody and Shared Custody?

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When Parents Cannot Agree on Medical Decisions

Two parents sitting facing away from each other

Some parents use custody of the child as a bargaining chip, and therefore do not make good decisions when medical issues come up. These cases can be very difficult for joint custody arrangements, because high conflict situations do not often lead to easy solutions.

For example: particularly post-pandemic, vaccine hesitancy is on the rise, which means an increase in cases of disagreement about child vaccinations. If you don’t see eye to eye and neither one of you is willing to budge, who decides what to do?

How to Resolve the Dispute Outside of the Court System

If you don’t have sole custody, and your child custody agreement doesn’t outline how decisions should be made, then you and the other parent need to decide how to handle medical decisions. For parents with joint custody, here are the different ways you can decide medical procedures and medical treatment:

  • Choose one parent to have final decision-making on all medical decisions.
  • Choose one parent to make the decisions for certain categories, and the other parent makes the decisions in the other categories.
  • Submit the issue to mediation. This means using a third party, objective mediator who works to get the parents to come to an agreement. The mediator cannot make any decisions, but must instead rely on an agreement being reached.
  • Submit the issue to arbitration. Arbitration is different from mediation in that the arbitrator makes the decision after both sides present evidence in an informal court-like setting. This option avoids taking the matter to court.

Mediation and arbitration can take weeks or possibly even months, but is still usually quicker than getting into court.

If you wish to avoid the court system, but cannot wait to come to a decision, it may help to have both parents sit down with the doctor to explain the medical treatment. A medical professional can explain the benefits, risks, and alternatives without introducing bias based on bitterness between ex-spouses. They can give you their professional opinion on the best option for the child’s life.

When A Court Order is Needed

There are times where you cannot avoid court. Perhaps your ex-spouse has gotten involved in conspiracy theories, or maybe some personal trauma has led them to start avoiding the medical system altogether. When you can no longer agree, or you are concerned that your child’s care is no longer safe with your co-parent, you can request the court modify your custodial arrangements.

If there has been a significant change in circumstances, or the child is in danger, these are both reasons the court may consider changing a legal custody order. A licensed attorney with experience in shared legal custody can help evaluate when the court will update your child custody case.

The court may grant sole legal custody for one parent if they feel that the other parent cannot be trusted to make appropriate decisions. Sole custody can be granted specifically for medical decisions if one co-parent is generally trustworthy in other categories.

RELATED: 5 Reasons a Judge Will Change a Child Custody Order

Contact Myers Law Firm for Help With Shared Child Custody Medical Decisions

If the parties cannot agree on a major medical decision and there is a not a method in the custody arrangement to resolve the dispute, it can create a tinderbox situation. Families endure anger, stress, fear, and more. At Myers Law Firm, we understand how difficult this experience can be, and how you can feel concerned for your child and helpless to get them the care you believe is right. We want to help you put your child’s health first, whether that means keeping your original custody order or requesting a new one.

Since every custody case is different, it’s impossible to say what may be your best option without knowing the relevant factors in your situation. That’s why we offer a free consultation to discuss the specifics of your case. Please call 1-888-376-ATTY (2889) or complete our online contact form to get started today.

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

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