Georgia Child Custody: Understanding the Law & Finding a Qualified Attorney
Unfortunately, each judge may have a different opinion as to what he or she finds relevant in any given case so it's important to understand all of the basics and make sure all procedures are handled by an experienced attorney.
Understanding Child Custody & Child Support in GeorgiaDisputes over child custody and visitation are among the most hotly contested in Georgia family law cases. While the court has established legal guidelines to follow, there are always extenuating factors which must be considered. At Stearns-Montgomery & Proctor, our team members have acted as strong legal advocates on behalf of parents in these situations for 30 years. We offer tried and true strategies designed to protect the rights and well-being of both you and your child.
Reasons for Awarding Sole Custody
The custodial parent may have been more actively involved in the children’s lives.
One parent may be better equipped to provide for the children’s needs.
The other parent may engage in activities that put the children in jeopardy, such as drug abuse and addiction.
What is Legal Custody?
Under Section 19-9-22 of the Georgia Code, legal custody refers to the person who is the primary caregiver of the children and has the legal authority to make decisions on their behalf regarding matters such as their education, development, healthcare, and religious upbringing. While the other parent may be allowed visitation, they do not have legal custody and must conform to the requirements set forth in the custody order.
Disputes Over Child Custody
It is a common misconception that in family law cases, the mother is automatically granted full custody of the child, while the father gets occasional weeknight, every other weekend visitation.
This may have been true in previous generations, but Georgia child custody laws now consider it in the child’s best interests for both parents to take a more active role.
Time-sharing arrangements are encouraged, and parenting plans for child custody and visitation must be submitted, which include:
- Arrangements for shared custody during the week, as well as on weekends;
- Alternating arrangements for holidays, school breaks, and special occasions;
- Provisions for attendance at school, sports, and recreational events;
- Shared responsibility for making decisions regarding the child’s education, health, development, and religious upbringing.
How is Child Custody Determined?
Physical custody refers to where the child resides. One parent may have sole physical custody, with the other receiving scheduled visitation rights. Or, both parents may share physical custody, which means the child lives with each parent a portion of the time.
When deciding issues regarding child custody, courts in Georgia will consider the best interests of the child and the environment that will provide the most stability.
The courts consider many factors, including:
- The age and sex of the child
- Compatibility with each parent
- The ability of each parent to care for and nurture the child
- Psychological, emotional, and developmental needs of the child
- Ability of the parents to communicate
- Custodial agreements of the parents
- Prior and continuing care that the parents have given the child
- Wishes of the child
- Safety of the child
- Any history of domestic abuse
A child over 14 years of age may wield substantial influence over a court's decision to choose which parent will have primary custody. Remember, the court considers it important for a child to maintain a relationship with both parents. Therefore, visitation rights are still awarded to the parent who is not given primary custody of the child.
Common Child Custody Questions & Answers
Are courts more likely to award child custody to the father or mother?
Can child custody be modified?
Can parents share custody?
- Joint legal custody, which means that both parents have equal rights to and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child.
- Joint legal custody, which means that physical custody is shared by the parents in such a way that the child is assured substantially equal time and contact with both parents.
One parent has primary physical custody and the noncustodial parent has the standard visitation of every other weekend, alternating holidays and an extended period in the summer, and pays child support based on the Georgia State Child Support Guidelines.
Depending on what county you are filing for divorce in, those families who have children are required to attend an educational seminar as part of the adjudication process. This is not a marital counseling session and not intended to get the parties back together. The required education program, entitled "Seminar for Parent of Minor Children," addresses issues specific to "families in transition," which includes parties involved in divorce, separate maintenance, paternity, change of custody, visitation, legitimation, and other domestic relations matters involving children.
Types of Custody
In Georgia child custody proceedings, there are several issues that need to be resolved. These include the right to physical custody of the children and other custodial rights that allow you to take an active role in the various areas of their lives.
Physical Custody and Custodial Rights in Georgia
Physical custody refers to where the child lives and the rights of parents to visitation. Under Section 19-9-3 of the Georgia Code, neither the mother nor the father has automatic rights to physical custody. Instead, this is decided based on input from both parents, their attorneys, and the judge in the case. A custody order will dictate where the child lives and the rights to visitation on weeknights, weekends, and during school breaks, holidays, or other special occasions.
In addition to physical custody, the custody rights of each parent will be addressed in the order. This will dictate whether the parent has the right to visit the children at school or recreational functions, and the amount of input they have in matters relating to the children’s education, development, and religious upbringing.
Joint Legal Custody
In addition to joint physical custody, in which both parents are responsible for the child’s care and supervision, the custody order may grant both parents authority in making decisions that impact their children’s lives. Under Section 19-9-6 of the Georgia Code, joint legal custody means that both parents have the right to make legal decisions regarding their children’s care and upbringing, which includes:
- The children’s education;
- Medical care and treatment pertaining to their physical, emotional, or developmental needs;
- The extracurricular activities the children engage in;
- The children’s religious upbringing.
In order for these types of plans to work, each party must be able to lay aside their differences and cooperate with one another, putting their role as parents and their children first.
Georgia Visitation Rights
In Georgia child custody cases in which joint physical custody is not shared, one parent may have primary custody while the other has visitation. This may be due to the children’s ages, where the parents live, or in response to the non-custodial parent’s work schedule or lifestyle. Visitation rights often include provisions for mid-week visits, overnight stays on the weekend, and extended visitation over holidays, school breaks, and other special occasions.
Supervised VisitationIn cases in which the parent’s lifestyle or behavior is called into question by the court or in cases involving domestic violence, the judge may opt to order supervised visitation as a way to ensure the children’s safety. In determining the best interests of the children, the judge may use their own discretion to implement additional boundaries, such as requiring counseling and random drug and alcohol testing.
Under the Georgia Code (O.C.G.A. 19-9-7), supervised visitation may be held in a protected setting, such as at an approved child care agency or treatment center, and may be supervised by trained personnel at the agency or center. Provided supervised visitation goes according to schedule and the parent complies with other court specifications, he or she may eventually be approved for more flexible visitation rights.
Georgia Parenting Time
Parenting time in Georgia child custody cases is generally determined by the judge, factoring in any parenting agreements between the parents. Parenting time guidelines are dictated by the court and go into extensive detail, outlining the amount of day-to-day involvement each parent will have with the children.
Do I Need a Georgia Parenting Plan?
Under the Georgia Code (O.C.G.A. 19-9-1), parents in child custody disputes are required to submit a parenting plan to the court. In effect, these act as a parenting agreement, outlining living arrangements and regular visitation, in addition to scheduling time for the parents to spend with the children over holidays, school breaks, and special occasions.
Details to include as part of this plan are:
- Arrangements regarding how parenting time will be divided during the week;
- Plans regarding weekends and overnight visits;
- Detailed arrangements for holidays, school breaks, and other special occasions;
- Provisions for pick-up and drop-off locations;
- Authority in making decisions regarding the child, such as those involving their education, health care, and religious upbringing;
- The rights of each parent to attend school and recreational functions;
- Methods of communication, both between parents and with the child.
The primary reason a parenting plan is required is to maintain the peace. In other words, if the parties should disagree, the parenting plan will be used by law enforcement. If one of the parties is convinced the parenting plan is not in the best interest of the children, except in very limited situations, they will have to go back to court to get the judge to modify or change the parenting plan.
Through their attorneys, parents may devise a joint parenting agreement to submit to the court, or they may issue individual plans for the judge’s consideration. The parenting plan should include provisions for living arrangements and visitation schedules, along with legal authority for making decisions impacting the children. In child custody proceedings, temporary hearings, and custody modifications, the court will incorporate parental agreements as part of the child custody order.
Georgia Parental Alienation & Abandonment
In child custody disputes, when one parent demeans the other or keeps him or her from seeing the children, parental alienation can occur. This type of behavior can escalate to the point of causing parental abandonment and is a factor the court will consider when making custody determinations.
In cases in which divorced or unmarried couples hold hard feelings toward each other, these attitudes can easily be conveyed toward the children. This can lead to parental alienation, harming the parent/child relationship. These attitudes can also be a force in pushing the other parent towards parental abandonment.
It is in the children’s best interests to have both parents play an active and engaged role in their lives. Under Section 19-9-3 of the Georgia Code, not taking the steps necessary to encourage a healthy relationship between the other parent and your children, causing parental alienation, could negatively impact your rights to custody and visitation during court proceedings.
These cases can be the most difficult to prove. It takes careful planning and preparation. Hiring an experienced family law attorney can make a difference.
Our Georgia Child Custody Attorneys
Legal custody, physical custody, temporary custody, and visitation
Child support, child support enforcement, and child support modification
Guardian ad litem services regarding child custody and modification
Grandparent custody, grandparent visitation, and grandparents' rights
Interstate jurisdictional issues under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).
Adoption services and post adoption support
Our managing partner, Randy Sabatini, is especially well-known and has earned a stellar reputation for child custody cases. In addition, firm founder, Mary Stearns-Montgomery, has served as a guardian ad litem in Georgia and has extensive experience representing the best interests of children in family law matters.