Under Iowa law, there are two types of legal custody: joint and sole. With sole legal custody, a parent has the ability to make all decisions regarding the child’s education, extracurricular activities, medical needs, and religious instruction without any input from the other parent. That is, if a parent has sole legal custody, they can make the decision for the child to get the COVID-19 vaccine without consulting the other parent. Because sole legal custody provides one parent with considerable power, it is often only awarded in cases where there is a history of domestic abuse.
The more common form of legal custody is joint where both parents have equal participation in the child’s education, extracurricular activities, medical needs, and religious instruction. In joint legal custody, neither parent has legal custody rights superior to the other parent, which creates stalemates when the parties are unable to compromise.
When an impasse arises, such as whether the child should be vaccinated, what is the correct course of action? The Iowa Court of Appeals recently acknowledged this dilemma in In Re Marriage of Rigdon, 2020 WL 7868234 (Iowa Ct. App., Dec. 16, 2020). In Rigdon, the parents disputed whether their child should be administered psychotropic medicine. After failing to reach an agreement, the custodial parent proceeded with allowing the child to take the medicine. In response, the non-custodial parent filed a contempt action alleging the custodial parent violated his joint legal custody rights.
In Rigdon, the Iowa Court of Appeals suggested that the better course of action may have been for the court to decide the dispute before any further action was taken. That option, however, can be expensive and cumbersome for legal custody disputes that need immediate resolution.