Contributing Author: Dylan Mitchell
In March, former American Idol winner turned mega-star and talk show host Kelly Clarkson settled her bitter divorce from Brandon Blackstock. Although most of the details of the agreement, such as the division of the parties’ assets, Clarkson’s large one-time equalization payment and monthly child support to her ex, are strictly for a celebrity divorce, one stipulation stands out – that the couple’s two children be vaccinated against COVID-19, based on the recommendations of the children’s pediatrician.
For two years now, families have weathered the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its early stages, COVID-19 forced parents to consider differing views on how to protect their children and other family members from the virus, leading to disagreements over whether whether children would wear masks, go to school and visit family and friends. With the advent of several major COVID-19 vaccines approved for adults in the past year, parents have faced new decisions about their own vaccinations. For divorced couples sharing custody, each parent’s vaccination status has become a hot topic. In a case decided by the New York County Supreme Court in October 2021, Judge Matthew F. Cooper ruled that a father’s in-person parental access (visitation) with his three-year-old child would be suspended until until the father is vaccinated or undergoes weekly tests.
Now that a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved via emergency use authorization for children as young as five years old, a new front of vaccine decisions has reached a boiling point and has begun to spill over into the world. family court. The highly publicized divorce between Clarkson and Blackstock illustrates what has become a controversial and pressing issue for families nationwide. Agreeing (or disagreeing) on whether to have children vaccinated is an issue that many parents are working through today.
For the celebrity couple, the decision to have their two children vaccinated, as they eventually agreed, is described in court documents as being related to their out-of-state visits to see their father in Montana. . As part of the deal, the couple’s children will fly privately to visit their dad until they’re fully vaccinated, and Clarkson agreed to pay her ex a $50,000 ‘reimbursement’ for children’s private plane travel. Due to the timeliness of the vaccine issue and their recently finalized deal, Clarkson and Blackstock are one of the few couples to have that decision spelled out so clearly. In situations where a pro-vaccine parent has sole custody, that parent usually has legal jurisdiction to vaccinate their child. In situations where the disputing parents are still married or custody is shared, the co-parents do not have such clearly defined guidelines and must return to court to determine the appropriate course of action.
In some states, such as New York, the courts have so far overwhelmingly sided with parents in favor of vaccination, determining that vaccination is in the best interests of the child. Recent decisions illustrate that in the eyes of the family court, the risk and potential imminent harm of COVID-19 as well as the authorization for emergency use of the vaccine in children five years and older outweighs all the arguments to wait and see what other research shows on the short and long term effectiveness and impacts of the vaccine. Similar results have emerged in states like California and New Jersey. But with the emergence of new variants of COVID-19 and the ever-evolving public health measures related to prevention and safety, we are likely to see a prolonged wave of complex family court cases involving the parent. who has the power to decide whether children are vaccinated. against COVID-19. The myriad of different laws in different states could mean that across the country results will vary.
Celebrities are often divorce trendsetters (remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling”?), and Clarkson and Blackstock can set an example for other co-parents looking to reach an initial agreement that’s in the best interest of their child. The A-list stars face the same challenges as any layman during a divorce, but the issues are hyper-amplified and play out in the public sphere. Watching how celebrities navigate the choppy waters of divorce successfully helps illustrate how others can do the same.
Dylan Mitchell, a partner in Blank Rome’s New York office, handles complex marital litigation, custody, and visitation matters for high-net-worth and high-profile clients. He also serves as a mediator. With over two decades of family law experience, he delivers favorable results using a compassionate and understanding approach.