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A primer on Georgia child custody law

Matters of child custody and visitation in Georgia focus on the child’s best interest.

Georgia law requires that a judge making a decision about child custody or visitation base it on the child's best interest, considering the particular circumstances and what would support that child's "welfare and happiness."

Custody has two aspects: legal custody, which gives a parent the power to make important decisions about the child, and physical custody, meaning with which parent the child will primarily live. Both kinds of custody can be held jointly and sole custody is also an option.

Often, before a custody matter even gets to a judge the divorcing couple negotiates a marital settlement agreement that includes provisions for child custody and visitation. Such an agreement is submitted to the judge who incorporates it into the final divorce order unless he or she finds it is not in the child's best interest. The judge may also add missing terms to the agreement.

In a case in which the issue of custody does not settle and the matter goes before the judge, that judge has wide discretion to carefully consider all the evidence in the divorce trial and determine what is in the child's best interest. Georgia does not allow any preference of one parent over the other based on gender.

The Georgia custody statute says that the judge can look at any relevant factor, including those in a long list:

  • The "love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties" in the relationship between the child and each parent
  • The same aspects of any child-sibling relationships and ties to where those children live
  • Each parent's ability to give the child "love, affection, and guidance" and to continue the child's education and upbringing
  • Each parent's familiarity with the child and that child's needs
  • The capacity of each parent to provide material necessities to the child, considering potential child support
  • Presence of nurturance and safety in each parent's home environment as opposed to material things
  • Importance of continuity of a stable home
  • Stability of the "family unit" of each parent, including his or her support systems
  • Each parent's health
  • Each parent's involvement in the child's education, social life and activities
  • Each parent's work schedule and its impact on child care
  • The child's historical "home, school, and community" and any health or educational special needs
  • Parenting abilities
  • Parental ability to encourage a good relationship between the child and the other parent, if in the child's best interest
  • Recommendations of a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem
  • Family violence, child abuse or parental criminal record
  • Parental substance abuse

The law provides specific requirements for the judge to follow if there is evidence of violence or abuse.

Georgia law gives a child who is at least 14 the right to decide the parent with whom he or she wants to live, unless the judge finds the placement is not in the child's best interest. A child's parental preference if at least 11 but not yet 14 shall be taken into account by the judge, but is not binding because the judge's determination of the child's best interest is controlling.

Georgia custody law is complicated and factually specific so it is smart for any parent facing custody issues to seek legal counsel. An experienced Georgia family lawyer can provide advice and advocacy concerning custody, visitation and any other matter in the divorce.

With offices in Evans and Lincolnton, Georgia, the lawyers of Harrison & Medlin, P.C., represent parents facing custody issues as well as clients in a wide variety of family law matters across the state.

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