Vaccinations and Custody: What happens when divorced, separated or unmarried parents can’t agree?

November 10, 2021 | By Hillary J. Moonay

Parents are facing an important health decision for their children. COVID-19 vaccinations have now been approved for children ages 5 and up, which has led to custody disputes emerging between parents as to whether or not a child should be vaccinated. How should parents navigate this issue? 

As outlined in our previous coverage and Hillary Moonay‘s interview for the Washington Post, in Pennsylvania, most parents share joint legal custody of their children. In such cases, both parents would have to agree regarding any legal custody decisions for their children such as those related to medical, educational, or religious concerns. This includes vaccinations –and the COVID-19 vaccine.

If one parent has sole legal custody of the children, that parent can make the vaccination decision for the kids on his or her own.

Otherwise, the parents have to figure out a way to come to a consensus. If they cannot, and one parent feels strongly about the children receiving the vaccine, that parent can petition the court to modify legal custody. The court would then decide whether one parent will have the authority to make certain decisions regarding the children without the consent of the other parent. In other words, a judge wouldn’t necessarily decide that a child should receive the COVID-19 vaccine but, instead, could give one parent the sole legal custody regarding the child’s vaccines, or even just the COVID-19 vaccine. Before making a ruling, the Judge would want to hear testimony from both parties as to why the child should or should not be vaccinated. Often the Judge will consider the recommendation of the child’s pediatrician.

It is often helpful for both parents to understand why they may disagree about a vaccine and to determine if there is a way to compromise. For example, maybe one parent is not comfortable with a specific vaccine because it is so new or because a child is still young. Perhaps they can agree that while the child will not receive the vaccine immediately, he will receive it by the time he turns a certain age. Additionally, both parents would be wise to seek the advice of their family pediatrician to understand the pros and cons of the vaccine and what makes the most sense for their children.

Public schools in Pennsylvania have not yet required the COVID-19 vaccine for children. However, that is likely to change over time. When that happens, it is likely that a court would consider the COVID-19 vaccine to be in the child’s best interest. This assumes, of course, that there are no health concerns specific to that child or family religious beliefs that would prevent the child from receiving the vaccine.

Vaccinations, like other custody issues, are another potential area of dispute between parents that require everyone to consider what is truly in a child’s best interest. These decisions, while not always easy, require careful consideration from both parents.

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal or medical advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel or medical consultation, and should not be relied on as such.

About the Authors

Hillary J. Moonay


Doylestown Divorce Attorney Hillary co-chairs Obermayer’s Family Law Group. She focuses her practice exclusively in the area of family law, where she handles all phases of the negotiation and litigation of domestic...

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