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How to Avoid Conflict Over Children’s Medical Treatment After Divorce

medical decisions for kids in divorce

Imagine that your teen daughter goes to visit your aunt during spring break, and when you turn on your phone after work one day, you find a text from your daughter saying that she has just been to see a doctor. Would you be upset that your aunt took your daughter to a doctor without asking you, instead of waiting to ask you about it first? It would likely depend on the circumstances. If your daughter fell down while hiking and got a cut on her arm that required stitches, then of course your aunt was right to take her straight to urgent care instead of waiting until you finished work. If your aunt took your daughter to get contact lenses or birth control pills, you would understandably be upset. In other words, medical emergencies are one thing, but interfering in a parent’s decisions about their minor children’s medical care is another.

Decisions about children’s medical treatment are a frequent source of conflict between divorced parents. A Central Florida divorce lawyer can help you resolve those conflicts, or even better, prevent them by addressing issues of medical care in detail in your parenting plan.

What Florida Law Says About Parents’ Decisions About Their Children’s Medical Care

If you and your spouse have minor children together, then the court will issue a final order for a parenting plan at the time that your divorce is finalized. The parenting plan is separate from agreements about division of property and, if applicable, spousal support. The parenting plan does not address child support, but it is necessary to have a parenting plan in place before the court can have a basis on which to determine how much child support is appropriate. Parenting time (sometimes called “physical custody”) is only one of the issues addressed in the parenting plan. The parenting plan will also outline which parent has the final say, in the event of a disagreement, about various parenting decisions (the legal definition of “legal custody” is exactly this decision-making authority, not merely who spends more time with the children). The main decisions for which parents set guidelines in the parenting plan have to do with education, extracurricular activities, and non-emergency medical care. While some divorced parents disagree about, for example, which summer camp the children should attend or whether they should enroll in public or private school, disagreements about non-emergency medical decisions can be an especially sensitive issue.

It is important to note that the parenting plan deals specifically with non-emergency medical decisions. In a true medical emergency, the law grants that whichever adult is responsible for the children when the emergency arises must seek professional medical treatment for the children without delay. Whenever you enroll children in school or an extracurricular activity, you sign forms authorizing the staff of the school or extracurricular program to seek emergency medical treatment if necessary. The following are examples of situations that would require emergency treatment:

  • An accidental serious injury, such as a bone fracture, a concussion, or a cut that requires stitches
  • A severe allergic reaction
  • An incident in which a child accidentally ingests poison or a non-edible object
  • An animal bite
  • A severe acute illness, such as appendicitis

By contrast, with non-emergency medical treatment, parents have time to talk to doctors about the necessity, appropriateness, safety, and risks of the treatment before the doctor performs the intervention. Parents have the opportunity to research the treatment in detail and seek a second opinion before deciding that it is the best choice. Divorced parents might disagree about the appropriateness of a treatment, whether because of perceived health risks or because of the cost.  The following are some medical treatments or decisions about which parents might disagree if a doctor indicates that the parents’ minor child would benefit from them:

  • Medications for ADHD, depression, or other psychiatric conditions
  • Oral medications for treatment of acne
  • Orthodontia
  • Hormonal contraceptives
  • Cosmetic procedures
  • Tonsillectomy
  • Placing tubes in a child’s ears to treat recurrent ear infections

Likewise, in families where one parent refuses to let the children get the immunizations required for school, but the other parent wants the children to get vaccinated and attend public school, the parents have sometimes brought the disputes before the court.

Pediatrician Caught in the Middle of Divorced Parents’ Dispute About Child’s Treatment

In Florida, a parenting dispute over non-emergency medical care led to a medical malpractice lawsuit. A boy named Alexander had his adenoids removed when he was 3 years old.  Alexander’s mother signed the forms consenting to the surgery.  After the surgery, the surgeon called Alexander’s father and told him that the surgery had gone well and Alexander was recovering. The father responded angrily, as he had not known that the surgery had been scheduled. He ended up suing the surgeon, but the court ruled that her actions did not constitute medical malpractice.

The Time to Hash Things Out With Your Spouse About Children’s Medical Care is Now, Not When a Doctor Recommends a Non-Emergency Intervention

What happened with Alexander’s parents should be a cautionary tale. Their conflict and the resulting costly lawsuit could have been prevented if their parenting plan had gone into more detail about non-emergency medical care. In general, the more detail, the better. If you say, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” you are asking for more disputes and possibly more litigation. You should talk about all the “what ifs” while you are drafting the parenting plan. Do not worry that you are being petty and making your divorce take longer than it needs to; you will be saving yourselves money and stress in the long term.

Contact Sean Smallwood About the Non-Emergency Medical Care Provisions of Your Parenting Plan

Leaving things ambiguous in your parenting plan leaves the door open for your ex-spouse to push your buttons and put up obstacles. An Orlando family law attorney can help you craft an airtight parenting plan. Contact Sean Smallwood in Orlando, Florida for a consultation.

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