A recent opinion from the Indiana Court of Appeals held a mother in contempt for failing to abide by the terms of a paternity decree, which provided that her child had to be vaccinated if required by her school, even though the mother had properly submitted a religious objection.
In In re Paternity of G.G.B.W., 80 N.E.3d 264 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), an unmarried couple gave birth to a daughter in 2007. In 2011, they entered into an agreed decree of paternity (the “Decree”), which established legal and physical custody. The Decree provided, “[m]other must seek [f]ather’s input prior to [m]other making any major medical decisions for [c]hild” and “if the child attends a school that requires vaccinations for enrollment, and the child will be denied enrollment unless she receives the vaccinations, then the child will be given the required vaccinations for enrollment.”
The child was initially enrolled in a Montessori academy that did not require vaccination. Therefore, the child went several years without being vaccinated. However, the year following the entry of the decree, the child was enrolled at a public school. The public school required that its students receive vaccinations but, pursuant to Indiana Code § 20-34-3-2, allowed an unvaccinated student to attend if a parent claimed a religious objection to immunization. Unbeknownst to the Father, Mother executed (and continued to execute) religious objection forms. The child continued to attend the public school unvaccinated. Due to Father’s objection, he filed a petition to modify legal custody regarding medical decision-making, as well as a contempt petition alleging that Mother was in violation of the Decree for her failure to vaccinate the child.
The Court of Appeals, analyzing the Decree under the rules of contract interpretation, determined that unless the Decree provides otherwise, all applicable law in force at the time the agreement is made impliedly forms a part of the agreement, because the parties are presumed to have had the law in mind. At the time the Decree was entered, the religious exemption existed. In other words, because the religious objection exemption to the vaccination requirement had been in effect prior to the Decree, the mother and the father were presumed to have been aware of it when they entered into their agreement. The result is that the child must be vaccinated if her school requires it regardless of the existence of the statutory exemption.
The rules of contract interpretation can be harsh. While the law presumes that both parties take into account each and every law in existence at the time of contracting, it is more often the case that they do not. And whether you condone or condemn the use of immunizations, this case illustrates the importance of competent legal counsel when entering into any binding contract.
For more information about this or any matter related to child support payments and family law, please contact KDDK attorney Mallory Deckard at mdeckard@KDDK.com or (812) 423-3183, or contact any member of the KDDK Family Law team.
About the Author
Mallory Deckard represents individuals, businesses and other clients with consistency and confidence. An even-keeled litigator and proactive counselor, she primarily practices insurance, personal injury, medical malpractice, family, creditors’ rights and bankruptcy, and debt collection law. A native of Avon, Indiana, Mallory practiced personal injury law and medical malpractice law at firms in Indianapolis and Evansville before joining the KDDK team.
(J.R. Trockman, associate attorney at KDDK, contributed to this article)