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Making Healthcare Decisions for Children of Divorce

When there is a divorce involving children, the parents often have vehement disagreements about various parenting issues. One of the most common areas in which parents may not see eye to eye is with the health care decisions that must be made. Before the divorce is finalized, they might be able to agree on whose health insurance policy the children will be under, but when a specific issue arises, they often have different ideas about how it should be addressed.

Sole vs. Joint Custody in Virginia

The first consideration when there is a disagreement about a health care decision on behalf of the child is which parent has custody. There are two different types of child custody; physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody addresses which parent the child lives with primarily, and how often the non-custodial parent is able to visit the child. Legal custody deals with the ability of parents to make major decisions that affect the child. Healthcare decisions would fall into the area of legal custody, because it would be in the “major decision” category.

When One of the Parents Has Sole Legal Custody

If one of the parents has sole legal custody, then they are able to make decisions about routine medical care (e.g., physicals, dental checkups, eye tests, etc.) without consulting the other parent. In addition, either parent can make a decision about emergency medical care while the child is with them. However, if this is the parent who does not have sole legal custody, he or she must inform the other parent about the medical treatment the child received as soon as it is reasonably possible.

When Parents have Joint Legal Custody

It is becoming increasingly common in Virginia and throughout the country for parents to share legal custody of their children. The default position of the family courts is that it is generally in the best interests of the children for both parents to be involved in their lives. So, even in situations where one parent has primary physical custody of the child, they often have joint legal custody; giving them equal decision-making authority over areas such as education, religious upbringing, extra-curricular activities, and health care. 

In some cases, one parent may be given final decision-making authority over certain areas, with other areas going to the other parent. For example, if religious upbringing and education are more important to the mother and the child is on the father’s health insurance policy, the mother may decide which religion the children will be brought up and which school they will go to, while the father may to have decision-making authority for medical treatment.

In many joint custody arrangements, however, the areas of decision-making are not as well-defined, and it is expected that the parents will consult each other and work cooperatively and in keeping with the child’s best interest. And while they might start out with this intention, specific situations may come up in which a major disagreement may arise.

When the Parents Can’t Agree on Medical Treatment

Disagreements over healthcare decisions can lead to a standoff between two parents with the equal decision-making authority, putting professionals who are just trying to do their jobs in the middle of a parenting dispute. For example, the child injures his arm playing football. The mother wants the child to have surgery, but the father wants to pursue other treatments. Both have consulted equally-competent medical professionals who support their point of view.

How does this situation get resolved? Most likely, in one of two ways; the parents either work together to reach a solution both of them can live with, or one of the parents (probably the mother in this case) petitions the court to obtain full legal custody so she can go forward with the surgery. When the court gets involved, the results are unpredictable, and they depend largely on the viewpoint of the judge presiding over the case and the strength of the arguments presented by both sides.

Involved in a Child Custody Dispute in Virginia? Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney

Parents with joint legal custody should be committed to working together to decide important parenting matters (based on their children’s best interests). And before going back to court, they should exhaust all other avenues and try to work out any disputes on their own. That said, there are times when there is little choice but to petition the court for a modification of the current custody arrangement. When that situation arises, you need strong legal counsel in your corner advocating forcefully for your rights and interests, and for the best interests of your child.  To schedule an initial consultation with the seasoned family law attorneys at Olmstead & Olmstead, call us today at 703-361-1555. You may also message us through our web contact form or visit our Manassas, VA office in person at your convenience.

What are My Rights as an Unwed Parent in Virginia?

When a child is born to an unwed mother, the father has no legal rights initially. Without being married to the child’s mother, there is no automatic presumption under the law as to who the father is. For unmarried fathers to establish parentage, the father must voluntarily declare his paternity in writing, and if it is disputed, prove he is the father through a DNA test.

Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity

If there is no dispute between an unmarried couple that they are both parents of a child that is being born, the easiest way for the unmarried father to establish parentage is to fill out a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) at the hospital at the time of the child’s birth. There is no cost to execute an AOP form at the hospital, and it does not impact any government benefits that either parent may be receiving. By executing and an AOP form at the time the child is born, the father’s name can be added to the birth certificate right away.

If you did not execute an AOP form at the hospital or birthing center, the form can be filed later with the Virginia Office of Vital Records for a small fee. Once the AOP form is properly filed, you become the legal father of the child, and your name is added to the child’s birth certificate.

Involuntary Establishment of Paternity

If there is any dispute about who the father of the child is, establishing paternity may require a court action. A Petition to Establish Paternity can be filed with the appropriate court by the mother, father, child, or the state of Virginia (if the child is receiving public assistance). For example, if the petitioner claims to be the father and the mother denies this, the petitioner can request that the court orders DNA testing.

DNA samples are taken from the mother, alleged father, and child and taken to a laboratory for analysis. This can establish with nearly 100% certainty whether or not the man being tested is the father of the child. If paternity is successfully established, the father may be required to pay child support, but he may also petition the court for child custody and visitation rights.

Child Custody and Visitation for Unwed Parents in Virginia

In many states, when there are unmarried parents, the default position of the court is to give custody to the mother unless the father takes action to gain custody. In Virginia, once paternity is established, the courts do not favor one parent over the other. Instead, they look at the best interest of the child.

That said, the court does give a lot of weight to the current situation, and who the primary caretaker of the child is now in determining who should have custody. So, assuming the mother is currently the caretaker of the child and has been for a while, the father would have to prove that she is not a good parent in order to take custody away from her.

If you have established paternity early on in the child’s life (e.g., within the first few years) it may be possible to obtain shared custody or at the very least, liberal visitation rights. Shared custody refers to physical custody of the child, and this is a co-parenting arrangement where both parents have the child for at least 91 days of the year.

There is also the matter of legal custody.  This refers to which parent has the right to make important decisions on behalf of the child; such as in the areas of healthcare, education, religious upbringing, and extracurricular activities. Parents may have joint legal custody, in which they must confer with each other on these important decisions, even if one parent has sole physical custody.

Speak with an Experienced Family Law Attorney

Unwed parents, especially fathers, face some challenges when they want to be involved in the lives of their children. Establishing paternity can be a complicated process, especially if it is disputed. And once paternity is established, you will often need to go to court to petition for custody or visitation rights.

At Olmstead & Olmstead, we understand the frustrations unmarried parents often face when they are trying to do what’s best for their children. We work closely with our clients, putting our experience to work to help them develop the most practical, effective, and cost-efficient legal solutions.   Call us today at 703-361-1555 to schedule a consultation. You may also message us through our web contact form or visit our office in Manassas, VA at your convenience.