As opinions abound on COVID-19, disagreements about how to handle the pandemic have made their way into the world of family law.
Leslie Hansen of Griffiths Law, PC has worked in family law for 20 years. Her background includes time as a prosecutor in both the Denver District Attorney's Office and the 18th Judicial District, plus several years in the private practice. Hansen now exclusively focuses on family law at her Lone Tree firm. She spoke to Colorado Community Media about the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on family disputes and what advice she has for parents who find themselves at odds of pandemic response.
Hansen said parental disputes about a child's medical care are not terribly common, but they do come up.
Parents have typically established how to approach issues like vaccinations before separating or divorcing, she said. That doesn't mean one person never has a change of heart, and with joint custody being the most common arrangement among co-parents, that can lead to a legal battle.
Settling the issue
The COVID-19 pandemic did not change how these legal disputes are settled, Hansen said. It's the responsibility of the parent seeking to change who controls a child's medical care to prove their child's mental or physical health is endangered.
Ultimately a judge decides whether to grant one parent sole power. The judge may pay close attention to a family's history and how medical decisions were made previously, whether a parent's stance is rooted in a concern like religious rights, or they might focus more on medical evidence presented in court, Hansen said.
“The only impact COVID might have is that the court may advance a case like that on their docket, just because the risk of getting COVID when we are in a worldwide pandemic,” Hansen said, “is a question that needs to be decided right now.”
Legal standards remain the same, but the pandemic did create new challenges for parents navigating their children's medical care, Hansen said.
“We've seen an uptick in disputes regarding COVID generally,” she said.
Some parents did not agree about court-determined schedules as shutdowns and social-distancing became the norm. Others did not agree about traveling with children during the crisis. One parent may have supported wearing masks while the other did not. Or another said children should attend school remotely while the other preferred an in-person model.
The recent availability of COVID-19 vaccinations presented one more pandemic-related issue for parents, Hansen said.
“With regard to vaccination, I think my No. 1 piece of advice to a parent on either side of this issue is what does the child's pediatrician say,” Hansen said. “In either case, you better have some medical testimony.”
COVID-19 will likely have lasting effects on family law, Hansen said. The pandemic came as a shock for many people, but moving forward she expects parents will take into account more unexpected or unthinkable circumstances in their settlement agreements.
“I think you're going to see parents who want to lock these kinds of things down,” she said. “It's going to get people thinking about when this happens again, how did we handle it.”