Making Healthcare Decisions for Children of Divorce

Co-parenting after a divorce is not always easy, especially if you have experienced a lot of contention regarding parenting issues while you and your spouse were married. Healthcare is one area where this can become especially challenging. If you are newly divorced and think this might become an issue or you already have a conflict with your ex-spouse over obtaining healthcare for your children, it is a good idea to understand and follow the law in this area.

When One Parent Has Sole Legal Custody

If only one of the parents has sole legal custody of the children, he or she does not have to consult the non-custodial parent about obtaining routine medical care. The law also permits either parent to make a decision about emergency medical care without having to consult the other parent when the children are in that parent’s care. However, the parent without sole legal custody must inform the other parent about the emergency treatment that has taken place as soon as feasibly possible.

When Both Parents Have Legal Custody

It is rare in South Carolina for one parent to have sole legal custody. The prevailing custody arrangement is for parents to assume this responsibility jointly even when the children primarily live with one of them. Both parents have the legal right to provide input into medical decisions for their children in a joint legal custody situation.

The vast majority of joint legal custody arrangements also designate a “primary” and a “secondary” custodian.  The primary custodian is typically the parent who has physical custody of the children the majority of the time.  These primary and secondary designations have an impact on each parent’s ability to make medical decisions for his/her children. Primary custodians have a duty to consult with secondary custodians before seeking non-emergency medical care outside of routine and regular appointments.  However, usually the primary custodian has the final say in the decision making in the event the parties can’t agree even after discussing the issue.

Like with a sole custody arrangement, in an emergency medical situation the parent who has physical custody of the child at the time can make the medical decisions he or she deems appropriate and then inform the other parent of them as soon as possible. The primary custodial parent should inform the secondary custodial parent about non-emergency appointments and discuss the results with him or her as soon as possible afterwards. The secondary custodial parent may have legal recourse if he or she feels that the other parent is deliberately withholding important medical information about their child.

When Parents Disagree About Medical Treatment

Medical issues can become just as contentious as other issues (such as discipline and education) that parents have disputes over. Parents often have strong feelings about topics such as medication, surgery, and possible alternative treatments. Below are some common hypothetical examples.

A child in elementary school has received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The father of the child prefers to follow the doctor’s recommendation of taking daily medication while the mother sees an alternative practitioner who advises her to use only natural treatments such as dietary changes.

A child is about to start kindergarten and the school requires the completion of a series of vaccines prior to admittance. The mother schedules a doctor appointment to obtain the required vaccines, but the father is adamantly against it due to concerns about side effects. He is willing to go so far as to sign a statement for the school that he has a conscientious objection to vaccines.

A child broke an arm while playing a game with friends. The mother, who has primary physical custody, wants to follow the doctor’s advice to perform surgery on the arm as soon as possible. The father would prefer to set the arm in a cast to see if will heal on its own before pursuing surgery.

What makes situations like these even more stressful is the need to make a quick decision. It can become especially complex when the parents share joint physical custody and neither has the final say in medical matters. If situations like this persist and the parents can’t reach a resolution, one of the parties may feel compelled to file a legal custody modification, wherein the family court may appoint a guardian ad litem to learn more about the child’s medical needs and then make specific recommendations to the judge.

Work with a Legal Firm Experienced in Family Law

The family law attorneys from Cate & Brough Law Firm have decades of combined experience in all matters related to family law in South Carolina. We work closely with clients, taking the time to listen and understand their needs, so we can develop the most practical and effective legal solution. If you are dealing with conflict over medical decisions for your children or any other family legal matter, we invite you to contact us at 864-585-4226 for a consultation. We serve the people and community of Spartanburg, South Carolina, as well as all surrounding communities.

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Cate & Brough, P.A.

At Cate & Brough, we all have personal experience with family law and family court. We know more than just what the law says about your issue – we know what you are going through.

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